Warbird Woes

Martha's take on why you should never fly an airplane after you've sold it.

Grumman F8F Bearcat Warbird

Grumman F8F Bearcat Warbird

** Mike Devanney's Grumman F8F Bearcat
was a community affair.**

Paul Redlich dead-sticked a newly restored P-40 into Ohio’s Clermont County Airport (I69) from 6,500 feet this winter. The Allison engine suddenly blew on a test flight of the rare and iconic World War II fighter about six miles east of I69, and Paul found himself flying a glider with the sink rate of a Mosler safe and with the windscreen obscured by oil and hydraulic fluid. He made it back because he’s a magnificent pilot (and gifted mechanic) but was high and fast on the approach.

When he realized it wouldn’t stop by the end of the runway, he tried a groundloop in the overrun, but the grass was wet and the airplane slid sideways through a fence onto the road. Paul says his helmet, Nomex flight suit and gloves helped him escape unhurt with only minor facial irritation from the spray of hydraulic fluid. Even with fuel in the wings and behind the cockpit, the tanks remained intact and there was no fire.

OK, OK. I take back everything I said about Nomex and helmets and flight suits ... I guess.

Paul, his charming and attractive wife, Diane (I hate her), and I are good friends, although after my piece "Warbirdia" I am persona non grata at the Tri-State Warbird Museum where Paul works his magic on a collection of exotic and rare airplanes. Prior to this understandable ostracism I gave Paul a couple of flight checks, one in an AT-6 and the other, his Commercial, in the museum's two-seat P-51. He flew the ride flawlessly, and I was both exhilarated and mortified by the end of the ride. See, we agreed that loops, Cuban eights and slow and snap rolls were better measures of a pilot's skill than plain vanilla chandelles and lazy eights. Plus, they were a lot more fun ... at first. I was pretty blind in that back seat, riding through a bunch of positive, negative and zero G's and sweating from the heat of the sun blasting through the canopy. Some initial queasiness degenerated into acute airsickness, and I was in imminent danger of tossing my cookies all over "Admiral" Dave O'Malley's P-51. Wisely, Paul didn't even try for Clermont County but landed on Todd Winemiller's long grass strip, where I tumbled out of the cockpit and rolled around in the soft grass, laughing, gasping for air and making him promise to keep it right side up on the way home.

When I heard about the P-40 crash and that he was OK, I sent Paul a picture of my ex, Ebby, taken in 1947, long before I knew him. He’s standing on the wing of the P-51 he’d just put through the fence at Lunken Airport when a coolant line burst on takeoff.

Ebby told me that, when he came home after flying P-51s in the Air Corps, “defending the Panama Canal” in World War II, he was sitting in his office at the family’s valve works one spring day, staring out at a brilliant blue sky. In an instant he knew it was time to put being vice president of the Lunkenheimer Gear Co. on a back burner and to get into the cockpit of his beloved Mustang again as soon as possible.

Curiously, in about 10-year cycles, Ebby would alternately immerse himself in sports cars, driving on Jim Kimberley’s Ferrari team at places like Watkins Glen, Elkhart Lake and Sebring, and then get lost in airplane world again. These were the glory years of the cross-country Bendix, and he debuted in 1947 racing Paul Mantz, Joe DeBona, Jesse Stallings and Jackie Cochran and placing third in a highly modified ’51 named “Miss Buttonpuss.”

I don’t know the precise timeline or how many airplanes he owned, but it was in the Cincinnati Aircraft hangar at Lunken Airport that Ebby, Willis Stuckey, Charlie Petrou and others designed and fashioned a radical flush, streamlined cockpit and converted the fuel system from individual wing tanks to “wet wings” — wings filled with fuel. When he left California headed for Cleveland, Ohio, high-octane fuel was leaking from the wings so badly the Long Beach Fire Department foamed the airplane down on the runway before he took off.

He sold one of his airplanes that year and planned (I think) to fly the ’48 race on Texas oilman Glenn McCarthy’s team. But Ebby said he couldn’t resist the urge to take the airplane up “just one more time” before the new owner picked it up. On that flight a line on the Merlin engine let go, spraying high-pressure coolant just as he lifted off the runway. So he chopped the power knowing the engine would seize if he tried to get it around the field and stuffed it onto what was left of Runway 24. Much like Paul almost 65 years later, he slid through the perimeter fence into a parking lot. Nothing was hurt except the airplane and Ebby’s wallet; the buyer wasn’t interested in scrap metal.

Many times I heard his admonition: “Never, ever fly an airplane once you’ve sold it.”

It was the late '60s when Mike Devanney heard of an F8 Bearcat sitting somewhere in the middle of Texas. The owner, after flying it once, was terrified at the thought of ever climbing into it again. Mike had flown T-6s, B-25s and DC-3s in the Air Force and owned a Texan, N45F, when I first met him. Fact is, he could and did own and fly just about anything from Cubs to Beech 18s, Lodestars, DC-6s and an Aeronca Chief on floats, which he sometimes operated off grass. 45F, like every car, airplane, tractor or boat he ever owned, was, well, a disgrace. Oh, his stuff usually ran pretty well, but cosmetics, conformity and cleanliness weren't high on Mike's list of priorities. He'd pretend innocence when I'd point out that he'd had far more mishaps than I, with absolutely nothing on his record, while my rap sheet was disgustingly complete — well, mostly. Michael's projects were inevitably an exercise in frustration. Any tool, tow bar, battery charger or air compressor you needed first had to be located and then repaired. Torpedo heaters were out of kerosene; the socket wrench you needed was missing from the set; safety wire was the wrong gauge and oil the wrong weight. At one point we talked about getting married, but I recovered my wits in time, realizing we'd quickly kill each other.

We stayed forever friends, and, like Paul Redlich and Ebby Lunken, Mike Devanney was a natural, a born pilot.

The Grumman F8F Bearcat, a single-pilot fighter, was really a great big glorious R2800 engine with a fuselage that looked like an afterthought. I pitched in to keep it in the air, cast in my usual role of littlest person — “hey, see if you can squeeze into that rear compartment while I fish this through. ... ” We’d work at least five hours for every hour it flew and, despite valiant and comical efforts, no way could I fit on Michael’s lap. I adamantly refused to ride back in the claustrophobic, windowless rear compartment.

After four or five years the itch abated and Mike sold the airplane to Gunther Balz in, I think, Kalamazoo, Michigan. But Mike's brother, John, was a camera buff and wanted some aerial pictures before it left. So on a pretty Sunday afternoon Mike asked me to fly John in the Cub at Blue Ash Airport in Cincinnati, Ohio. We'd rendezvous at the WLW radio station tower in Mason, where Mike would make some passes in the Bearcat and John could get the shots.

“But Ebby always said, ‘Never, ever fly an airplane after you’ve sold it.’”

“This will only take a few minutes, and John has a terrific new camera.”

“I haven’t been to church.”

“Well, after you land at Blue Ash, stop at St. Mark’s in Evanston for the 5 o’clock. I’ll be back at Lunken with the Bearcat and meet you there.”

So all went as planned — the Cub, brother John, the rendezvous, the photo shoot — and I was only a few minutes late for Mass at St. Mark’s. But when I turned onto Airport Road at Lunken, there were a bunch of emergency vehicles and flashing lights at the end. Blessedly, Mike was standing in front of the Bearcat, but the airplane was covered with a greasy coat of oil. Black scorch marks streaked down the prop and the belly, and it smelled funny.

The master rod had failed on final for 21L, and the tower personnel had hit the fire button when they saw a spectacular streak of flame and smoke emanating from the F8. I don’t remember if he had any power or was high enough to glide to the runway, but the engine was “history.” When the fire guys left, Mike and I ducked into Tom Noonan’s trailer (the FBO) to escape the newspeople, and I vividly remember him calling Gunther Balz in, I think, Kalamazoo, to explain there’d been a little problem. Sadly, Balz didn’t want the airplane even though Mike had found a “swell R2800 still in the can that we can hang in no time.”

In the weeks before he died last summer, I was privileged to spend a lot of time with Mike, laughing and reliving with him some of those memories. There are lots more. ... I’ll tell you sometime.