By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor
The year was 1985 when I traveled just outside Reedley, California to interview Robert G. "Bob" Lock at his family ranch. Bob passed away last week in Polk City, Florida, and this post is a tribute to one of aviation's most humble yet talented aircraft restoration artists.
At the time, I was the small town's Sports Editor and Lock's son, Robert, was a star center on the University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball team. At 6' 10", to have a local kid playing on such a big NCAA team was a huge deal in this little farm town. I went to interview his dad as his son was quite busy dominating the paint back in Lexington.
I was interested in aviation at the time but not yet licensed, and Bob Lock's wife, Sandy, sent me out back to find her husband. When I walked into the shop, my mind exploded with the sight of a glorious collection of what looked like every airplane part every manufactured. In the middle of it all, working away, was Bob, smiling as always.
"We'll have to talk while I work on this wing, hope that's O.K.," Lock said, as he meticulously glued together tiny sticks of spruce in a small framework of metal. He was building wing ribs for one of the many vintage airplanes he had restored in his life. I was mesmerized as he calmly took a pile of sticks and attached one to another...it looked like he was building a balsa model, not a real airplane. We discussed Wildcats basketball for a brief moment, but the subject quickly turned to aviation.
He explained every detail of what he was doing, how each piece fit into the next, and what that finished rib would do to help the wing take its shape. I was watching a true Master Craftsman, it was clear to me now.
As the years passed, Bob and Sandy moved to Florida, and he became known as one of the country's preeminent restorers. He completed a number of gorgeous flying museum pieces, but his rare 1929 Command-Aire 5C3, NR997E, was possibly his best work. He was the kind of restorer who could find a pile of rusted airplane parts out in back of a barn, and dig down looking for a data plate, showing make, model and serial number. If he found that, he'd buy the pile, trailer it to his shop, and over the course of YEARS, recreate the ship back to "factory new" ready to fly condition with a fresh airworthiness certificate.
I wrote at length about his Command-Aire in this Airplanista post. When a pitched a feature to EAA Sport Aviation Magazine called The Airplane Detectives about these fine Master craftsmen who bring very old biplanes back to life, Bob - or should I say "Lock" because everyone just called him Lock - was more than happy to help and provided a ton of very intricate research materials.
I am saddened by this news, that another pilot I knew has Gone West. But the entire aviation family should grieve a bit here, because there are very few craftsmen like Lock that can restore these old airplanes and keep them flying. And with his passing, there is one less person who knows how to use his bare hands to craft such beautiful flying machines so we can all enjoy them.
This was a generous, friendly pilot who was always willing to help me with a story. He'd spend hours at air shows talking about his restored airplanes, and he was a gift to aviation. There aren't many craftsmen like this left, and Lock's passing means one less pair of talented hands to build wing ribs or stretch fabric lovingly over them. Time marches on, and slowly, the links we have to the early days of aviation are going away. There are a few great younger craftsmen following in their father's footsteps to keep honoring this era of aviation, but a craftsman like Lock is not replaceable. This is a loss for anyone who flies.
Godspeed, Lock. And please give Papa Louie a ride when you get to Heaven.