Rare 1918 biplane to land at Pearson Air Museum

Those aircraft played key role in airfield's Army aviation days in the 1920s

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

Published:

 

o What: Pearson Air Museum (also the temporary Fort Vancouver Visitors Center).

o Where: 1115 E. Fifth St., Vancouver.

o When: Summer hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Winter hours (Nov. 3 to

March 9, 2015): 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

o Cost: Admission is free.

? Two aircraft currently on display at Pearson Air Museum represent two aviation transitions: an unfinished Pietenpole Air Camper and a 1949 Ryan Navion.

? Bernard Pietenpole designed the Air Camper in 1928 as a project plane to be built by amateur pilots. "Pietenpole sold the plans and you bought the materials," Bob Cromwell, museum manager, said. It was designed to be powered by a Model A Ford engine. While it was originally designed as a high-wing monoplane, the Air Camper on loan at Pearson was modified to be a biplane.

? The Ryan Navion was an attempt to attract former military fliers, Cromwell said. Originally designed by North American Aviation (hence Navion), it echoed iconic features from the company's P-51 Mustang fighter, including the tail and canopy, "to capture World War II fighter pilots," Cromwell said.

Pearson Air Museum has acquired an extremely rare 1918 DeHavilland DH-4B airplane.

Aircraft restorer Mark Smith can define just how rare this Liberty biplane restoration is: “It’s probably going to be the next-to-last one done by anybody,” he said.

o What: Pearson Air Museum (also the temporary Fort Vancouver Visitors Center).

o Where: 1115 E. Fifth St., Vancouver.

o When: Summer hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Winter hours (Nov. 3 to

March 9, 2015): 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

o Cost: Admission is free.

Officials at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site announced Wednesday that the National Park Service has purchased the vintage aircraft from Century Aviation of East Wenatchee. The deal includes restoration, which will be a substantial task since the Pearson acquisition is being put together from pieces of several Liberty aircraft.

“It’s a mixture of original parts from 1918 and thereabouts and some parts manufactured in the 1970s by a man who was going to restore a couple of them,” said Smith, who, along with partner Karen Barrow, operates Century Aviation.

A World War I-era DeHavilland had been on his shopping list for a while, said Bob Cromwell, manager of Pearson Air Museum. When the National Park Service took over Pearson Air Museum in February 2013, many of the aviation displays and historic aircraft that had been on loan to the previous manager — Fort Vancouver National Trust — were removed by their owners.

To restock the museum, “we had a list of aircraft we were looking for. I met the folks from Century Aviation at a conference and they let me know” they had a DH-4B Liberty, Cromwell said.

“The National Park Service has been working hard to replace and revamp the exhibits at Pearson Air Museum, and the purchase of this DH-4B Liberty shows our long-term commitment to managing the facility,” Fort Vancouver Superintendent Tracy Fortmann said in a news release. “This is not our first addition to the collection for Pearson Air Museum, and it certainly won’t be our last.”

Pearson already is displaying a few Liberty components from Century Aviation: half of a left wing, two wing spars, an 89-gallon fuel tank, a tail skid and some cockpit equipment. They’re displayed on the shape of a full-size Liberty that Cromwell outlined on the museum floor with black electrical tape.

The restoration project will take about two years, Cromwell said.

? Two aircraft currently on display at Pearson Air Museum represent two aviation transitions: an unfinished Pietenpole Air Camper and a 1949 Ryan Navion.

? Bernard Pietenpole designed the Air Camper in 1928 as a project plane to be built by amateur pilots. “Pietenpole sold the plans and you bought the materials,” Bob Cromwell, museum manager, said. It was designed to be powered by a Model A Ford engine. While it was originally designed as a high-wing monoplane, the Air Camper on loan at Pearson was modified to be a biplane.

? The Ryan Navion was an attempt to attract former military fliers, Cromwell said. Originally designed by North American Aviation (hence Navion), it echoed iconic features from the company’s P-51 Mustang fighter, including the tail and canopy, “to capture World War II fighter pilots,” Cromwell said.

The $125,000 purchase was financed by Park Service money and donated funds. There will be another contract to install the fabric skin and repaint the aircraft.

The paint job will replicate that of the Liberty flown by Lt. Oakley Kelly; he was the first commanding officer of the Army Air Service’s 321st Observation Squadron, which was based at Pearson Field from 1923 to 1941.

“There hasn’t been a DH-4 Liberty based here since at least 1927, and it is a key aircraft when discussing the early Army aviation period at Pearson Field in the 1920s,” Cromwell said.

The airplane was originally designed by British engineer Geoffrey DeHavilland as a light bomber, and British forces flew them into combat starting in 1916.

When the United States entered WWI, military officials looked for the easiest Allied design to mass produce. More than 4,800 DH-4 Liberties were built in the U.S. from 1917 to 1923 (at $11,250 a plane, according to a museum interpretive panel.)

It was the only American-built aircraft to enter combat during World War I. They were used by the U.S. military until 1932.

Almost a century after their debut, there probably are fewer than 20 intact American-built Liberties, Cromwell said. Only five are approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for flight.

Smith, the East Wenatchee restorer, said that Pearson’s plane will be assembled from an inventory of DH-4 parts acquired in an earlier project.

“We did some work for a customer and took the parts in trade. So far, we have restored a total of five 1918 DH-4s,” Smith said. “At present, we have enough components to build two more, including the one for Pearson. The parts we have probably are the last ones out there, unless something is hidden in a barn.”

When it comes to putting the pieces together — or crafting replacement parts — Smith and Barrow won’t be flying by the seat of their pants.

“We have copies of 2,000 factory drawings,” Smith said.

Pearson’s biplane will be for floor display, by the way: It’s flying days are over.

“That allows us to use a lot of original parts that are not allowed in a flying aircraft,” Smith said. “It will actually have more real parts.”