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Plane speaking 

by Mike Corrigan


Inside a nondescript hangar within a maze of similar buildings at Spokane's Felts Field is Addison Pemberton's inner sanctum, his holy of holies, his clubhouse for aviation historians and antique aircraft nuts. Inside, you find all the comforts of home: a couple of low-slung couches, a table with four padded chairs and a vintage avocado fridge stocked with six kinds of soda pop. One corner of the hangar is dedicated to aircraft-related memorabilia from a lifetime's worth of collecting: model airplanes, shelves lined with altimeters, bomb sights, airspeed indicators, a mannequin in a leather flight suit, cap and goggles. Elsewhere sits a workbench plastered with diagrams and structural details. Upon closer inspection, you discover the bench is littered with graceful, geometric metallic shapes fabricated by Pemberton and his team on-site -- reproduction parts that are, for all practical purposes, identical to originals that exist now only as black-and-white images in photographs more than a half-century old.


But as you roam through this expansive shrine to the history of flight, you find yourself ducking and weaving occasionally to keep from running headlong into the hangar's primary residents. There's a 1941 Beechcraft Staggerwing, a WWII-era Stearman trainer, a 1931 Stearman Senior Speedmail and the skeletal frame of his current project, a 1928 Boeing 40. Pemberton's passion, his life's work in fact, is restoring antique aircraft. It's the thing that has turned his prop since he was very young.


"You're looking at 30 years of airplane junk," he says modestly. "It started years ago when I was a kid. I was raised in California, and in those years you could buy what we call ramp rats pretty cheap."


Ramp rats?


"Yeah, you know, airplanes that are melting into the ground. Flat tires and everything. When I was in high school, I started buying them and fixing them up."


Pemberton came to Spokane six years ago, leaving California for a better quality of life and a better business environment for his company (by day, Pemberton is the president and director of engineering at Scanivalve Corp., makers of wind tunnel and flight test instrumentation). Once here, Pemberton was pleased to find a group of like-minded folks (guys like Skeeter Carlson, Jim "Speed" Miller and others) hanging around Felts Field. "OAD is alive and well in Spokane," he laughs, finally revealing that OAD is "Old Airplane Disease." In his case, it's an affliction he contracted in his youth and has never been able to shake.


"I was raised in San Diego, and a lot of airline pilots were based at my home airport when I was a kid. And they had these exotic airplanes -- old, antique biplanes. So I was around that stuff from very young and was always impressed by them."


While in high school, he spent most of his free time at the airport repair station, hanging out with the mechanics and pilots and being seduced by the trim lines and graceful movements of the planes.


"I just loved being around that stuff. They were pulling engines and cylinders and doing cargo conversions and fixing wrecks all the time. I had access, I mean, unlimited use of this place, which was tremendous."


Though the welding and machining skills Pemberton picked up as part of the repair station gang would prove invaluable to him once his aircraft restoration passion kicked into overdrive, he admits there was a price to pay as far as his teenage social life was concerned.


"I grew up in a machine shop, and my dad was an inventor. I had machining and welding skills in junior high school. I threw rocks at girls until I was 20."


Pemberton started flying in 1969 at the age of 15 and was a certified flight instructor while still in college. He became enraptured by planes from the 1920s and '30s -- aircraft from a romantic era in the history of flight, characterized by great leaps in technology and innovation.


"I enjoyed the older planes from the get-go," he says. "I mean, they're beautiful. Look at the Staggerwing [the admittedly striking Beechcraft over my left shoulder]. It's a piece of art. There isn't a straight line on that airplane. And its capabilities are amazing."


Here, Pemberton digresses into what he wryly refers to as "boring history."


"By the 1920s, aerodynamics were pretty advanced," he explains. "They had learned what they needed to know about good, reliable control and structure. By 1926, they had developed a fairly reliable radial engine, and that spawned a whole gamut of airplanes that could fly coast to coast reliably at 200 miles an hour. I'm amazed by that period of history because you had people in an environment like we're in now, building airplanes that were state-of-the-art. This was pre-World War II. You didn't have huge manufacturers building airplanes. You had guys with torches and vises and simple hand tools building incredible airplanes, guys with basic aeronautical and engineering training building airplanes that were the fastest things in the world. Of course, by World War II you had this huge industrial influx, and the airplane really came of age. But for that little 10-year slice of history, you had garage craftsmen building state-of-the-art airplanes. It was kind of like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They were working out of their garages doing things that industry couldn't do. That's what my real love is."


Upon graduation from college, Pemberton embarked on a quest to realize the daydream that had been buzzing around in his brain for years.


"I wanted to buy a Stearman. And in those years, the EPA was trying to clean up central California. And from Bakersfield to Sacramento, there were hundreds of ag operators that had to clean up their act. They had all these World War II biplanes that had been converted into crop dusters."


Stearmans were originally designed as trainers for World War II pilots. They were converted after the war for agricultural uses and ultimately phased out.


"Back then, you could buy a complete airplane for $1,100. You could buy engines for $600. We eventually bought four Stearmans, three of which have been restored and sold. I still have my favorite."


In fact, Pemberton spent most of his paychecks in the late '70s on airplane parts -- an investment that would soon pay off.


"That stuff turned to gold in the '80s," he says. "I'm able to do most of what I do today because of that."





What he's doing today is restoring -- actually more like rebuilding -- a Boeing 40, a 1928 transport that was designed by Boeing Aircraft to fly the continental airmail routes. It was a large biplane that could accommodate four passengers in twin forward cabins. The pilot flew from an open cockpit. ("Where he belongs," interjects Pemberton.)


The Boeing 40 flies no more. The only two in existence reside in museums (one in Detroit's Henry Ford Museum and the other in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry). Neither will ever fly again. Pemberton's, on the other hand, will one day be fully functional, airworthy and as historically accurate as is humanly possible.


So how do you rebuild an airplane from scratch? Where the heck do you start? In the case of the Boeing 40, Pemberton's years of experience and extensive research -- along with a heavy dose of good fortune -- conspired to bring the dream down from the ether and within reach of the craftsman's capable hands.


Just about a year ago, he recovered the wreckage of a Boeing 40 that went down in southern Oregon on October 2, 1928. It was carrying mail on a Seattle-to-San Diego route -- known as Commercial Airmail Route 8 (or CAM 8) -- when it encountered bad weather and crashed between Medford and Roseburg.


"This is 18 years' worth of work just to get to where we are right now," Pemberton says. "I started looking for this airplane in 1982. I knew that it existed through insurance and FAA records. I tried to find it, but I was unable to do so. There was also a record of where it went down, but it was virtually lost and not rediscovered until 1998. When a friend of mine found the wreck, it had been on that mountain for 72 years."


To most, the remains of Pacific Air Transport Boeing 40 5339 would appear to be nothing more than a heap of junk -- rusted junk at that. But to Pemberton's informed eye, the pile of twisted tubular steel, wire and cable is something else entirely.


"There's not much left after an airplane has been on a mountain for 72 years," he agrees. "But there is a wealth of technical information here that is just unbelievable, including the data plate and serial number."


Pemberton has also acquired the original drawings and design specifications of the complete airplane (from another aircraft rebuilder along with the wreckage of a second Boeing 40), numerous photos (taken just before and just after the crash) and even a copy of the airplane's flight test report including the test pilot's notes.


"He basically says it's a really a crummy plane," Pemberton says, reading from the test pilot's report. "It's hilarious. 'Brakes are wholly inadequate.' "


Inadequate brakes or no, Pemberton is pressing on. Seven months into the project, he and his team of volunteers have rebuilt the fuselage and have begun to outfit the cockpit. Each new part is carefully crafted to be as close as possible to the original. Even the control pedals on the new plane have been meticulously embellished with the Boeing logo of the period.


"Whenever we can, and it doesn't compromise safety, we'll use an original part with the idea of using whatever we can whenever we can in the new airplane. There's about 50 parts we took off the wreck and moved over here. When we get done, this airplane will be safe. You'll be able to hop in it and fly it anywhere you want to go."


He cites the electrical systems and radio equipment of his restored planes as examples where the intrusion of modern technology is deemed necessary.


Although, he says, "We take all the radio gear and hide it on the side with a box that covers all the modern stuff up."


For as obsessed as he is about the safety and performance of his airplanes, it's obvious that Pemberton takes an equally inordinate amount of time getting the look down as well.


"This is Tom," says Pemberton introducing a mannequin donning the smart-looking brown leather flight suit, cap and goggles. "And he's wearing one of my prized possessions, a Colvenex Airmail Flying suit from the '30s. That suit fits me perfect, and in the wintertime I wear it to fly the Speedmail around. We do some airmail re-enactments, and half of the fun is getting dressed up."


Is fashion really a big deal?


"Oh, it is," he deadpans. "Socially, you can wear your Colvenex Airmail Pilot suit to fly the Speedmail. If you wore your Colvenex suit in this [motioning to the highly modified, historically insignificant Stearman trainer], you'd look like a dork. The goggles should be worn tangent to the eyebrows, parallel to the forehead. No lower, no higher, with just about half of the brow showing. And gloves. You never fly these airplanes barehanded. It would be like driving your bike with the kickstand down. That would just be tacky."


Pemberton's current stable favorite is the blue-and-red 1931 Stearman Senior Speedmail, one of only four flying in the world.


"It was built specifically as an airmail carrier [it also had room for two passengers in the open-air forward cockpit]. These things were flown all over the U.S. carrying mail from 1928-36. This was state-of-the-art in 1930 -- as good as it got. If you wanted to go somewhere, you could buy a ticket and they'd throw you in there and fly you around. At night. In the winter. In the snow. Can you believe that? Contact flying [flying in visual contact with the ground], by the way -- they had no instruments that allowed them to blind fly. Today, if you're forced to push some bad weather, usually you land, kiss the ground and thank the good Lord that you lived that day and promise you'll never ever do it again. Well, back then, these guys would wake up every morning and do that. It's inconceivable. On CAM 18 [the San Francisco to New York transcontinental route] alone, they killed 34 guys in four years doing that. All weather-related. It was part of the job."


While it's true that such arcane historical goodies come bubbling out of Pemberton almost involuntarily, it's getting the chance to add new adventures to the annals of flight that seems to interest him most. When the Boeing 40 is completed (in a projected six years), Pemberton plans to revisit the old CAM routes with five other historically significant airplanes on what he refers to as the "Golden Age Air Transport Tour," a kind of a traveling historical aircraft road show. It will be a chance for him to combine his love of aircraft, history and, yes, fashion, while experiencing flight at its most exhilarating -- in the open air, within sight of the ground, with the feel of 600 horsepower surging through the control stick in his hands.


"You fly along in these old airplanes, and you really have no time correlation. In an automobile, you drive along and you see modern streets and McDonald's and this and that. But when you're in one of these old airplanes, you really have no clue. You get away from the city and the modern airports and the real estate looks just the same as it did 80 years ago. You really have this time warp. It's a great way to fly.


"And you get to wear really neat clothes."

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