Homemade flying machine


POSTED: Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A lot of guys fall for a cover girl. In Willie Schauer's case, however, the object of his affection was on the cover of Sport Aviation magazine nearly four decades ago.

“;A Stardust biplane in red and white that a dentist built overseas and polished daily with Turkish towels,”; recalled Schauer, still somewhat in awe. “;I saw that paint job and knew that was the plane for me.”;

But you can't pick up a Starduster SA-300 at Planes 'R' Us. You have to build it yourself. All you need is a 180-horse Lycoming engine, a set of designer Lew Stolp's original plans, some raw materials and time. In Schauer's case, from 1975 to 2007. Willie Schauer has a reputation for stick-to-ittiveness.

“;In all my life in airplanes, I've not met any comparable to Willie,”; notes Bob Dixon, who teaches aviation history at Honolulu Community College. “;He's a master pilot and mechanic and quite a remarkable person.”;

Schauer's Starduster dream project is finally in the air, taking its maiden flight a few months ago. Except at the moment, while the propellor governor is being rebuilt and, oh, because the president is in town and most light planes are grounded for security reasons.

The idea was that Schauer, 85, and his wife would be able to go flying for the fun of it. Turns out, though, that the missus thinks flying is mostly a way of getting from here to there, and besides, Schauer admits, “;we just don't bend as easy as we used to.”;

Climbing into the small cockpit requires some agility. “;C'mon, foot!”; Schauer commanded his shoe when it hung up on the cockpit rim.

“;The next one will be a seven-eighths size SE.5a, a single-seater, provided that (flight surgeon) Jack Scaff signs off on me,”; Schauer said. The SE.5a is a Royal Flying Corps fighter from the Great War, a design nearly a century old. The walls of Schauer's hangar are decorated with pictures of Fokker Triplanes and Sopwith Camels. “;A lot of woodworking in that one, the SE.5a. But tremendous strength and stability.”;

THE PROJECT got off the ground when Schauer, then freshly retired as an Air Force pilot, settled in the islands and inherited a partially constructed fuselage, tack-welded together. He started building it in his two-car garage near Waimanalo but discovered that he spent half his time chasing rust, thanks to salty ocean breezes. He now has a small hangar space on Lagoon Drive.

Although the Starduster is a biplane, it's a modern design using modern materials. It has a welded steel-tube fuselage with aluminum longerons, covered with stiffened fabric. The dorsal area is a fiberglass molding, and the engine panels are sheet aluminum.

“;Everything on this bird is as tight as it can be,”; Schauer said. “;You have to take something off every time you have to get at something.”;

The wings use wooden box spars, and the ribs were computer-routed from seven-layer mahogany plywood. “;The spars are spruce and, to pass inspection, can't have a single crack or knothole.”;

The whole thing is tied together with airfoil-shaped rigging seated in turnbuckles, a technique that also dates back to World War I. Minute adjustments tune the airframe like a piano.

“;The left wing is a little heavy, for example,”; Schauer said. “;So I'll give the aileron a little more lift by adjusting the flying wires.”;

There are 10 flying and landing “;wires”; total, all rolled and threaded of stainless steel in Scotland. “;We don't have that capability anymore in the United States.”;

Unlike the linen-and-dope coverings of early airplanes, the Starduster is covered with Seconite, a nylon-type fabric that shrinks evenly under an iron to drumhead tightness. But, just like early airplanes, each rib is sewn to the fabric with knotted stitching and the stitches then covered with glued strips of fabric, cut with pinking shears to prevent fraying.

Rib-stitching is one of the most tedious parts of building an airplane. Schauer gives a lot of credit to friend Gene Wilkie, who also helped mask and paint the Starduster's elaborate paint scheme.

“;The fabric is probably good for 10 to 14 years,”; Schauer said.

How far can you fly?

“;I have a 47-gallon tank, cruising speed of about 135 knots, with a consumption rate of about nine gallons an hour. With no head winds, that gives me four to five hours in the air and a range of about 800 miles,”; snap-estimated Schauer. “;Not that there are that many places to fly to here!”;