Fools, Romantics, Angels and Saints

Lane flies with the National Air Tour in breathtaking airplanes that fly beautifully.

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Color_LaneF

It's said that the good lord protects children and fools. Perhaps that explains it. For on some level, Clark Seaborn, Hank Galpin, Gary Underland and Ron Hackworth all know they must be fools. Who else, after all, would take on the challenge of taking a few scraps of rotting wood and twisted metal from planes so rare that engineering drawings don't even exist for them anymore … and try to make them fly again?

"Why did I agree to do it?" laughs Seaborn, who spent 17 years restoring a 1929 Fokker Super Universal. "Sheer stupidity."

"Because I didn't know any better, I suppose," answers Underland, to explain why he undertook the 30,000-hour task of rebuilding a Sikorsky S-38 flying boat.

"I dunno. Because this is an historic airplane for Montana, and it's nicely shaped," Galpin says, looking at the1928 Travel Air 6000 he spent 10 years and 10,000 hours restoring. And then, as if sensing a need for a more practical, understandable reason, he grins and adds, "It also came with a bathroom."

"Well, they asked me if I thought it could be rebuilt," Hackworth says of the N9M-B prototype Northrop Flying Wing, whose 13-year restoration he supervised. "I said I thought it could." He pauses, a rueful smile spreading across his face. "In retrospect, I was wrong."

And yet, even as they don sheepish grins and duck their heads, knowing their odysseys must seem like lunacy to the vast majority of people walking the earth, there's a quiet pride that exudes from their twinkling eyes as they relate their individual sagas. For men like Seaborn and Galpin aren't really fools. They're romantics of the highest order. And while the line between those two categories may seem awfully thin at times, there is a difference. There's a kind of magic in the soul of a romantic that makes the world a gentler and more bearable place-a sense of valuing beauty for its own sake, and a belief, in the face of no known proof or evidence, in possibilities, miracles, and wonder.

Belief, of course, can be a powerful thing. And so sometimes … just sometimes-a romantic can actually make impossible feats and miracles come true. For the Flying Wing did, indeed, fly again. And here I am, holding onto the polished wood controls of a living, breathing and breathtaking Sikorsky S-38-one of only two flying-and looking out the window at a Fokker Universal wagging its wings in the sky. And somewhere up ahead of us, as we make our way across Michigan with the 2003 National Air Tour, is Hank Galpin's beautiful, Montana-proud Travel Air 6000.

Now, one might argue that an airplane restoration isn't a miracle at all- just a lot of hard work. And there's no doubt that all these projects involved a tremendous amount of work. The numbers alone bear out that fact. And the people involved in these rebuilding efforts had to go to great lengths to make them happen.

The Flying Wing team had to reverse engineer every single piece of the plane from scraps and some black and white photos a volunteer had rescued from Northrop's garbage dumpster. Underland had no drawings for either the top half of the S-38's fuselage or its landing gear and had to create all those parts from photos, by hand. Seaborn went so far as to hike into a wreck site in the middle of a mosquito-infested wilderness area, backpacking out again with 80 pounds of parts critical to the restoration project.

But hard work isn't the only thing that made the restorations possible. For hard work doesn't make irreplaceable parts show up out of nowhere, or create engineering drawings where none exist.

Explain, for example, how Seaborn found an elevator for the Universal, when no drawings could be found, and drawings for the rudder, when no rudder could be found. Or why, exactly, he somehow managed to dig up drawings for only one landing gear strut, but then found the other gear strut itself-and only the other gear strut-in all the time he collected parts and worked on the airplane. And then figure out exactly what the odds must be on the following sequence of events transpiring as it did:

In 1937, a Fokker Universal crashed in the Canadian woods. Twenty-eight years later, a hunter being chased by a bear inadvertently stumbled on the wreckage as he fled frantically away from his intended path. Twenty years after that, Bob Cameron-the man who convinced Seaborn to undertake the Universal's restoration-happened to run into that very same hunter, who not only remembered the airplane, but remembered how to find it again and led Cameron and Seaborn to the wreckage.

While we're at it, what are the chances that an EAA member would happen to get access to an obscure warehouse in Glendale, California, once upon a time, and notice an odd pair of structures holding up an attic storage space and decide that they must be pieces from a Sikorsky S-38 flying boat? Or that years later, he would see a notice posted by Underland seeking S-38 parts and call him, insisting that he knew where a set of tail booms were? And explain how it happened that just as the Flying Wing volunteers realized that they needed the help of a skilled aircraft electrician, a guy pulled up in front of the hangar on a motorcycle, shut down the engine, announced that he was an aircraft electrician who worked at Grumman and asked if they needed any help.

Put together all those impossible coincidences and happenstances, and you might just begin to believe that there's a patron saint of sacred old flying machines-or maybe just a guardian angel who looks out for romantics, dreamers, and beautiful old airplanes whose souls still want to fly. For all I know, the original pilots of the machines themselves might be sitting out there somewhere, nudging people and parts in the right directions to bring their beloved airships back to life. The universe is, after all, an infinitely complex and mysterious place, and the day I decide that I know how it all works, I fully expect some cosmic hand to come and slap me upside my head for my hubris.

But here's another idea. What if there are such angels and saints-but they don't inhabit the heavens at all? What if they wear grubby overalls and blue jeans and have names like Clark and Ron and Gary and Hank? And what if their magic is simply the power of their belief-a belief in the possibility of these old airplanes that's so irresistibly strong they attract people and parts to their doors like iron filings to a magnet? After all, the Chinese philosopher Chuang-tse once said that the power of one man's courage or belief could inspire to victory an army of thousands. Which is to say, a romantic's belief is pretty powerful stuff.

For regardless of what I do or don't believe, there's no questioning that if the rebirth of these airplanes is a miracle, it's a miracle crafted with hours and days and months and years of painstaking, patient and loving effort on the part of some very talented and dedicated people.

I've done a little aircraft restoration of my own, you see. And so when I see a beautiful finished product, its fabric tapes lined up perfectly, its tubing smooth and flawless, its paint shiny and run-free-I know how many long, tedious, and uncomfortable nights must have been involved in making that happen.

In fact, the defining lifestyle image for anyone who has signed on as a caretaker of an old or antique airplane isn't likely to be a calendar-bright photo of a biplane framed against the Midwest corn. It's more likely to be a cold Saturday night, with dinner a very long way away, a work light clamped on a stepladder, a heater plugged into the corner, and a damp airport chill in the air as yet another piece, step, or clue to the puzzle is painfully marked, cut, bead-blasted or polished. It's weeks, months, and years of those nights, all piled up on top of each other while the rest of the world is out going to parties, eating at good restaurants and catching up on all the current movies and sitcoms.

The people who take on that kind of burden to preserve these old airplanes may not actually be angels, but they're certainly a special kind of saint. At least in my book. Why do they do it? Maybe it's because they understand, as all romantics do, that with all the pain and ugliness the world is capable of dishing out, it's important to preserve ways to know, remember and experience beauty, in as many dimensions as possible. Maybe it's because they believe the sentiment I once read on a banner at Oshkosh-that when the last Waco gracefully flies, "the sky will become merely air"-and they want to keep that tragedy from ever occurring. Maybe it's because there's a kind of wonderful magic that occurs when you bring anything-even a rusty old airplane-back to life.

And maybe they do it for the same reason that any pilot gets up early on a Saturday morning to go clean the airplane, polish the fuselage, or fix that little oil leak that isn't really hurting anything but, well, isn't quite as perfect as the airplane deserves to be. Maybe they do it simply because an airplane, or the idea of a special, particular airplane, spoke to them … softly, gently, and irresistibly … and in some private, magical moment, captured their hearts. And like all romantics who fall head over heels in love, they then do whatever it takes to make sure the objects of their affection are safe, sound, and have the wings they need to fly.

Of course, it's been said many times that all lovers are fools. So perhaps Clark, Gary, Ron, Hank-and all the mechanics and pilots like them-are fools, after all. Fools, romantics, angels and saints … who bring dreams to life and help keep the sky from becoming merely air.