Sunday, April 28, 2013

Friend Ship: A Strong Bond Forms When a Pilot Builds a Vintage Airplane With his Bare Hands

Bob Lock's 1929 Command-Aire
By Dan Pimentel
Airplanista Blog Editor

We see vintage biplanes at air shows across the land each year, and marvel at their beauty. They are majestic, uncomplicated flying machines that remain true to the principals of stick and rudder aviation.

With decades of history riding atop their fabric wings, these flying works of aviation art tell tales we must keep alive forever. This exquisite aviation lore speaks of weathered aviators in goggles and scarves carving their legends in the sky, spending their days barnstorming, carrying the mail, or introducing a farm boy in Nebraska to the clouds.
  
The legacy of the remaining vintage biplanes remains intact today only because of the work of a few master craftsmen who have devoted their life to preserving the history of these flying museum pieces. With only scraps of rusted airplane and ancient written information to guide them, these builders use their hands, heart and minds to restore what was once forgotten, to make whole what was once a basket of parts and pieces.
  
One such biplane artist is Bob Lock of Lakeland, Florida. Lock is well known around the vintage restoration community as one of the few remaining builders who is keeping the craft alive. While he has built a long list of restored airplanes, it is one particular project that has dominated his soul for 45 years, one special airplane that is this master craftsman’s signature ship:
    
Command-Aire nine-nine-seven echo.
  
It wasn’t long after Lock was born that he began being pulled towards a life and career in aviation. As far as finding that one special airplane, it wasn’t a matter of if, it was more of a given, if you’ve ever had the privilege of knowing this particular pilot. “When I was very young,” Lock explains,  “I knew someday there would be a rare old airplane waiting for me to discover in a barn and I would restore it back to its original glory. I found that rare airplane in 1965 – a 1929 Command-Aire 5C3, NR997E. I stored the pieces for 13 years, researched its history and the company’s history, located the original designer, restored every piece of the airplane with my own hands, assembled and rigged and test flew the airplane. The Command-Aire is 81 years old and I am now 71 years young."
      
As Lock found his Command-Aire, "For Sale, as is, where is"
Lock found the Command-Aire by chance in a building in the Newhall/Saugus area of the Los Angeles basin. But long before that, he developed a relationship with its owner. “When in the Army and being stationed at Ft. Hood, Texas, we traveled to Parker, Arizona on the desert to play some war games,” said Lock. “I saw a lone Stearman fly over at a rather high altitude, heading west one day. It turned out that airplane belonged to Don Williams, who was an American Air Lines Boeing 707 flight engineer. We eventually met and became friends. He told me he had pieces of three Command-Aires stored inside a large shop building behind his house. When I went to acquire my airplane from him, he sent me into the field next to a horse pasture to dig out the wings from the weeds.”
  
The sheer aeronautical knowledge one must possess to take a collection of old parts dug out of the weeds and produce a better-than-new airplane is staggering. Lock is a master at his craft and has developed his technique over many hard days and long nights in the shop. But when his mastery is analyzed it is one part effort and three parts logic.
“I’ve always approached every restoration as a challenge,” Lock said. “All the skills needed today were widely used when the airplane was constructed, particularly in the late 1920’s. As in gas welding, I always view the skill by saying that if some guy back in 1929 could weld chromoly tube into a structure, so can I. All I have to do is practice and have good equipment. When I begin a restoration, looking at the entire project seems a bit over-whelming, so I always break the project into smaller portions. Like the wood work, the steel tube structure, the landing gear, the engine installation, the cockpit installation, etc. I’ve never used a computer on any restoration; they were done with my eye on those who came before me and originally did this magnificent work.” 
A clear example of how a logical approach to airplane building saves time in a restoration was found when Lock was in the final stages of building the Command-Aire. “Restoration requires a chain of thought with attention paid to the next step,” he said. “For instance, when getting close to finishing the 5C3, I assembled the airplane with the fuselage uncovered, put it up on scales and weighed it. Then I calculated its weight and balance and needed to adjust the empty weight center of gravity, so I located the battery in the aft part of the fuselage. But before deciding on a final location of the battery mount I had to consider rudder and elevator controls that would route through the area.”

 Like a gigantic flying puzzle, “A” leads to “B” which leads to “C” if you are lucky and smart. There was much of the original structure of the Command-Aire present, so these parts could be used as patterns. The fuselage frame, tail surfaces, ailerons and struts are all original, but Lock built new wings, landing gear, engine mount, and metal cowlings. As he worked, he enlisted the one man in all of aviation who could help him complete this vintage restoration.
  
Lock, top, researching the Command-Aire
in Maryland
In 1982, Lock met up with the Command-Aire’s original designer, Albert Vollmecke, and the two builders “assaulted” the FAA in Washington, D.C, looking for Vollmecke’s original type design data in the way of drawings. “We never found the drawings, but what I found stored was a treasure trove of random aviation data that is still not accessible. But that is a completely different discussion,” says Lock.
  
Things can sail along quite nicely, but this being after all an airplane, there are hoops that any restoration artist most inevitably jump through before the FAA signs off on the project. The most difficult part of Lock’s Command-Aire restoration was the engine change, and it was this facet of the project that generated the most paperwork from Oklahoma City.

“I decided to install a Wright R-760-8 radial engine in the Command-Aire to replace the original Wright R-600 Challenger engine because I wanted reliability for future long cross-country flights,” Lock explains. “It seemed like an impossibility due to the FAA. There would be no field approval for the engine change, rather a lengthy and complicated Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) process had to be undertaken. It was a horrible experience and took four and a half years of my life to finally complete. It was a battle with the FAA, but I won!”
  
Through an entire career as a builder, Lock has preferred to work mostly alone, finding help from those who know specific things along the way. While he might have worked tirelessly in the shop for thousands of hours, his wife Sandy has always been there to offer the kind of spousal support any builder of vintage biplanes must have to be successful.

“Airplanes have always been a large part of my life. When I first met Sandy, I was only a student pilot about 25 or 30 hours in a Cessna 120 at the time,” Lock said. “She knew quickly that she had to share me with my airplane, and so it has been over the past 47 years. One of the highlights of my flying career was to fly a New Standard on the 2003 National Air Tour organized by Greg Herrick. Except for a couple weather days, I flew every day. Sandy drove a rental van carrying all the tents and equipment we needed and, after flying for up to six hours from point A to point B, there was the tent all set-up with long lines of people waiting for their ride. She traveled over 5,000 miles during the 18-day excursion.”
There is one aspect of being a biplane artist that is inescapable. Once you have crafted the machine from scrap to a work of aviation art, it still has to be flown. When this nerve-wracking time came in Lock’s project, it was a joyous event. “After 11 years of restoration work on the Command-Aire,” Lock said, “the time was getting close to flying it. When the airplane was ready for the first flight at Lakeland, Florida, I did not have any recent biplane time. So I met up with my friend Alan Geringer at the Selma (California) Aerodrome and logged about an hour-and-a-half to two hours of dual in his stock Stearman PT-17. I wanted to do a little air work, some slow flight and take offs and landings. That was all the recent biplane time I had on July 11, 1989 when my Command-Aire took to the sky from runway 23 at the Lakeland Airport. When the flight was over I would swear that I had flown the airplane in another life. The feeling was so strong it was eerie! Now, when the airplane is displayed, it is still pleasing when people tell me what a beauty it is – still after 21 years.”   
While Lock has logged many wonderful hours in the Command-Aire treating you and I to its beauty and graceful ways in the air, there was one flight in particular that could have ended very badly. Says Lock: “The airplane was recently disassembled for some fuselage and lower wing work at a restoration shop. When I traveled down to help assemble the ship, I wanted to put more stagger in the upper wings, and so we did. However, not having a single rigging instruction other than what I recorded when initially rigging the ship, we simply moved the upper wings forward. But when altering the stagger, the angle of incidence was decreased and I didn’t compensate for that. So on the test flight the airplane flew terrible and I didn’t know if I could get it around the pattern and back on the ground safely. After landing, we began to check decalage (the difference between angle of incidence of upper and lower wings on a biplane) and found the angle of the upper wings had gone from three degrees to 1 degree.  That is what caused the lousy flying airplane. Corrected, it flew just like it always did.”
  
From a trailer of parts and wings buried in weeds, Lock has spent many loving hours working on his beloved Command-Aire. You see the joy this airplane bring to him when he is around it, and as he climbs in and fires up, you know this partnership between airplane and pilot was meant to be. “The Command-Aire and I have been friends for the past 45 years,” Lock states proudly, “and the joy of flying it has not diminished. In the field of aviation and from the perspective of a pilot/mechanic, what more could anybody want!”
  
And when you think about this from the perspective of the airplane, being up there with Lock on stick and rudder sure beats pushing up Daisies in some pasture any day of the year.