The One That Got Away

A Fairchild 24 flies off after its restoration—only to return 19 years later.

[Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

Eight years ago I bought my first airplane, a beautiful classic 1952 Cessna 170B. That airplane had to have these features: a tailwheel, four seats, four hours of endurance, easy to maintain—and needed to be classic and beautiful. My budget in 2014 was $50,000. The final list included the Cessna 170E and the Stinson 108, and another model that caught my eye—the far less common Fairchild 24.

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As I mentioned before, one of my requirements was that my future airplane needed to be beautiful, which for me left the 108 off of my list. I know, I know: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." But that left my final decision between the 170 and the Fairchild.

The dictionary defines beauty as "a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight." And for me, that is a Fairchild 24.

The Fairchild 24 was an evolution of the Model 22. The 22 had two seats and an open cockpit in a mixed-construction, braced parasol-wing monoplane. The 24 has a closed cabin, and it initially came with two seats that eventually evolved to a four-seat configuration. The first year of production was 1932, and it would continue in production until 1948, basically unchanged.

It was initially offered with two primary powerplants: the well-known and reliable Warner Scarab with 145 hp (later 165 hp) and the 200 hp Ranger. However, with the Warner, the beauty factor kind of disappears for me. The proportions are wrong—the nose looks too short, and the rest of the fuselage is too broad. The opposite happens when you see the 24 with the stylish long nose hiding the 200-hp Ranger.

Probably the most charismatic characteristic of the 24 is the landing gear—it is much wider than other airplanes of its category. Spring-oil shock absorbers extend several inches and connect with the wing struts and the front spar, creating a robust structure—and enabling softer landings.

The cabin and wings are made of wood. The wing connects with the fuselage with a beautiful gull-wing shape. Behind the main cabin, the fuselage is made of steel tubes. To add to the mix of wood, fabric, and steel,the ailerons are aluminum.

My first contact with a Fairchild 24 was during Oshkosh 2013. It is easy to confuse the Warner radial version with a Stinson Reliant or Howard DGA—they feature a similar style, but not the ones equipped with the inverted inline Ranger. One of the 24s was particularly gorgeous. Bright yellow and emerald green, it represented a perfect restoration—probably better than the day it left the factory. I didn't know then that years later I would become a neighbor of that magnificent 24.

In the end, my decision leaned towards the Cessna 170, but I always felt like the 24 was the one that "got away." I kept checking them yearly at Oshkosh, chatting with the owners, and was always tempted to add one to my life.

A combination of tubes, wood, fabric, and aluminum. An unusual fuselage shape with a hump. Wide, tall landing gear and a birdcage windshield all come together in a weird way that pleases the eyes. [Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

Fast forward to 2021, when I moved my 170 from California to Poplar Grove, Illinois, just outside Chicago. To me, Poplar Grove (C77) is the most beautiful airpark you can imagine, especially if your passion is vintage airplanes. A few days after I moved in, I saw my favorite yellow-and-green Fairchild 24 taxiing by. I quickly found that Lon Dietz was the current caretaker, and after a quick call, he agreed to share his story.

In 1998, a photographer in the area gave him a photo he took of the 24 Lon now taxied by in. That photo remained on Lon’s fridge for the next 19 years. The day he entered the house after bringing the airplane back to Poplar Grove, he walked into the kitchen, took a look at the photo on the fridge, and told himself, "Now I know why that photo has been there for the past 19 years." So how did that happen? It's a great story.

The Fairchild's Story—and Dietz'

Sixty-seven-year-old Lon Dietz, a native of northern Illinois, has been living at Poplar Grove for the past 18 years. He learned to fly at Rochelle Municipal Airport (KRPJ) in 1974 when he was 18. Or, as he tells me, "I got my pilot license in a Grumman Yankee, but later I learned to fly in my first airplane, which was an Aeronca Champ that I bought for $3,500. After that, I upgraded to a Citabria and later to a Pitts. And I sold the Pitts to buy the [Fairchild]."

The Fairchild was a 1940 F-24 W40, the "W" meaning it left the factory with a Warner engine on its nose. At some point in the 1950s, somebody swapped the Scarab for the Ranger engine. The 24 belonged to the New House's Flying Services, and it had seen better times. It was basically abandoned and run down, and lay partially assembled in a barn, with the engine off. So why sell a perfect Pitts to buy a basket case? "Well, I wanted something different. Also, I wanted a project, and boy, this was definitely one!"

The Fairchild 24 looks like an airplane designed by a French or Italian engineer – it looks fast just sitting on the ground. [Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

After extensive work, Lon put the 24 together and flew it for 10 hours, but it was clear that it needed a full restoration, and that is what he did for the next seven years. In 1997 the ‘Pegasus’ got his wings again, and one year later, Lon took the airplane to Oshkosh, where it won "Outstanding Cabin Monoplane." After five years of flying it, the itch for a new project was growing, and after finding a Staggerwing project, Lon decided to call a collector who had it in his sights to transfer ownership. This would be a decision that he quickly regretted. Nineteen years later, Lon got a call from a friend in Houston, Texas: "Hey, I think the airplane you restored is for sale!" A quick call later to confirm it was the same airplane, and Lon struck a deal over the phone to be once more time the caretaker of the 24. That was in 2020.

After our photo shoot for these pages, Lon asked me if I wanted to fly it. After a quick briefing on the gray autumn day at C77, I turned the Plymouth handle to open the door and climbed in using the Art Deco step with the Pegasus Fairchild logo.

Like many other airplanes from that era and later decades, the 24 uses many components readily available from the auto industry. Two radiator caps from Chevrolets are used to keep the 60 gallons of fuel inside two tanks. Ford handles to open the doors, and Plymouth provided the handles to crank the windows up and down. [Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

I have flown 40 different types of airplanes, mostly vintage, a few warbirds, and more or less all feel the same when you sit. Some have better or worse ergonomics, and usually the field of view is restricted in vintage taildraggers, but the Fairchild 24 is definitely different. The panel is far away and low. The stick is curved and big, and the three-piece windshield allows for good visibility thanks to the streamlined shape of the Ranger engine. There is an almost comic feeling to how you sit; it takes a few minutes to get used to.

Starting the engine is standard; the Ranger starts without hesitation in the cold morning air and runs smoothly. Taxiing is easy, with some tapping on the brakes needed for the tight turns, and while you can see forward through the front lateral windows, S-taxiing is still necessary to be sure nothing lies straight ahead.

My First Flight

After the standard run-up check, we took the grass runway, heading to the west. I slowly added power while increasing the right rudder pressure. The 24 was easy to keep in the center of the runway. The speedstarted to increase, and when I felt the tail becoming light, I gave positive forward input to the big S-shaped stick. The tail came up, and the oil-filled gear smoothed over all the imperfections of the runway like a big classic American car.

We became airborne, and I pitched down to increase the speed to 80 mph, which is its best rate of climb. It's a chilly day, and that helped with the climb rate. With two big guys on board and full tanks, we are still doing close to 1,000 fpm. There was something besides the cold temperatures and the 200 hp of the Ranger helping us to climb. This airplane is equipped with a rare Aeromatic wooden propeller.

The Aeromatic prop allowed the engine to develop full horsepower for takeoff, climb, and cruise. After fully pushing the throttle forward for takeoff, the engine revved up to about 50 rpm under the red line. When airborne and with the airspeed needle pointing to climb speed, the engine hit the red line rpm. After reaching cruise altitude, the propeller increased pitch as the airspeed behaved much like a constant speed prop—except that it is fully automatic.

This is not a two-speed prop; it modulates itself based on the airplane's speed and other dynamic  forces. And as if that wasn't good enough, an Aeromatic propeller is a self-contained unit with no controls from the propeller to the cockpit.

The fully variable-pitch Aeromatic propeller is virtually equivalent to a constant-speed prop. But there the similarities end. The Aeromatic prop needs no governor, cockpit control, or hollow crankshaft. Instead, it is entirely controlled by dynamic pressure, centrifugal force, and air loads. [Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

It was time to practice some turns and stalls before heading back to the pattern to shoot the traditional three full-stop landings. During the turns, the controls were light, balanced, and effective. Stalls were straight-forward, and we mushed down like a big Piper Cub. For a 1930s aircraft, the cruise performance matched most Pipers and Cessnas of the ‘50s and even today. At 2,200 rpm, it cruised at 120 mph burning 10 gph—and 2 or 3 quarts of oil per hour, standard for a Ranger engine.This provides five hours of endurance.

Lon recommended I use 80 mph for the approach. I selected full flaps; the split flaps, while not too big, are effective in helping to control the speed while increasing the rate of descent. With a touch of the throttle for a stabilized approach, crossing the border of the field, I closed the throttle and started my flare waiting for the rubber to contact the grass and the spring oil shock absorbers to compress. I could barely feel the first contact. I held a little bit more, "flying" the gear instead of just letting it drop, as you do in the Airbus A330 when you "fly" the second set of wheels of the main gear. A perfect greaser, like landing on cotton.

Dietz with the 'Pegasus,' his green-and-yellow Fairchild 24 that he owns for the second time. [Credit: Leonardo Correa Luna]

I smiled, and Lon joked with me about whether I would be able to do it again or if it was just beginner's luck. 

We went up for a second flight around the pattern, and the same thing happened: another perfect landing, and I was in love with this airplane.

I got cocky on my third landing and lost concentration. I flared too late. A small bounce followed. I quickly applied forward pressure on the stick, pinning the wheels to the grass with the tail up. Even during an imperfect landing, the Fairchild 24 shows predictable and noble characteristics.

That was the last one—we taxied back with some taps on the brakes during the turns. As we shut down, the Aeromatic prop wound down to a full stop, and the smooth Ranger went quiet.

If I ever get a second airplane, the Fairchild 24 will be at the top of the list again, and maybe this time, it will not get away.

This article was originally published in the April 2023, Issue 936 of  FLYING.

I am 48 years old, airline pilot since I was 23. My first airliner was the 737-200 Classic, and that happened when I had 252 hours of total flying time! Latest aircraft, Captain of the Airbus A330. 14,000 hours and not counting anymore! I have experience in 41 different airplanes, mostly vintage and tail-wheel airplanes. My favorite one is my own 1952 Cessna 170B! Based at Poplar Grove C77. And of course besides flying, I have been an aviation photographer (and occasionally writer) for the past eight years.

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