N49750, SN 8294
My first flight in Piper L-4A, N49750, at LEX on August 3, 2005, went almost flawlessly with the exception of a lower than normal oil pressure which cut the flight short. Although this flight was brief, it was significant for a 63-year-old airplane that has been ground-bound since 1960.
Since I was a kid, I wanted to restore a rag-wing airplane. As a youth, J-3’s, L-4’s, Taylorcrafts, Champs were all classifieds I enjoyed reading in Trade-A-Plane issues while dreaming of purchasing an old run-out and fixing it up just as new. A new subscription to the Cub Club newsletter in late 1991 prompted the editor, Mike Strock, to inquire what my interests were in his newsletter. Explaining my life-long restoration desire, Mike included an ad in the next edition indicating my interest in purchasing a project, unbeknownst to me.
That winter, a call came from Mr. Jim Bagwell of Dalton, GA who told me of an L-4 he and his brother-in-law began restoring when his brother-in-law suddenly passed away. Jim said he saw an ad where I was looking for an L-4. Being dumbfounded, I told him I placed no such ad while he insisted that I did. Quizzing him further, he mentioned the Cub Club newsletter, which I had not yet read, and I then recalled my conversation with Mike Strock. Arrangements were made with Mr. Bagwell for my family to stop by on our way back home from Florida on spring break. Yes, Mike did a pretty good job on the ad as it turned out.
During spring break, our family stopped to visit the Bagwells. Mrs. Bagwell served cookies and milk to Debbie, my wife, and our two young daughters while Mr. Bagwell showed me the L-4 project in his basement. It was literally a wreck. The emotions of a potential great project took hold and I agreed to Mr. Bagwell’s generous terms and to work out future logistics for moving the plane to Lexington. Debbie speculated when I would have time for this project during the ride home, and left me wondering as well.
Several months after my purchase, fretting as to how to move the L-4 from Dalton to Lexington, I saw Dr. George Gumbert, a friend and local airport board member, at a party. George and his wife, Skip, owned several old planes, including a Waco, and I enthusiastically told him about the L-4 purchase. George and Skip always wanted an L-4 for sentimental reasons because Skip’s brother flew one during WWII. Not knowing anything about aircraft restoration, I disparately needed a knowledgeable partner, so we agreed to co-own the L-4 and restore it together. Debbie endorsed this partnership but was quick to predict that the L-4 would remain a piece of junk. Her conclusion was pretty much true for the next 11 years.
In late July, 1992, using George’s flatbed and truck, we transported the L-4 to Lexington. We looked like the Beverly Hillbillies traveling down the interstate and caught many stares. Shortly thereafter, arrangements were made with a mechanic in east Tennessee to begin the restoration and we transported the ship to his shop using the same flatbed and truck. After two years of having no work being completed, our mechanic left town and arrangements were made with another nearby mechanic to take over the project. Monies were advanced with, again, no work being performed and the individual skipping town. The local airport manager contacted us and asked us to move our project. Finally, after another year had passed, we trailered the L-4 back home.
Once back in Lexington, parts of the L-4 were stored in my hangar and George’s hangar where they sat for the next three years. Debbie’s insightful predictions were now sadly a reality.
During this time, I began to research the background of N49750. Military service records showed it being received by the USAAF as an O-59A on February 16, 1942. According to its military serial number 42-15175, it was procured in the first large batch of O-59’s purchased. A few months were spent flying submarine patrol along the east coast of Florida, and during this time, the O-59’s officially became designated as L-4A’s. The remainder of the war saw 42-15175 used in training exercises in Wisconsin, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, then finally in North Carolina. During March, 1945, it was decommissioned in North Carolina, rebuilt, assigned N49750, and over the next 14 years had 14 different owners.
Past FAA ownership records obtained showed Mr. John W. Hicks owned N49750 from 1959 until 1988, which was the longest period of ownership of N49750. In April, 1970, Mr. Hicks reported to the FAA that the aircraft was destroyed. The salvage was eventually sold in 1988 then resold to Mr. Bagwell in 1989. So, I am the 18th owner of N49750. Why was N49750 reported destroyed and what led to its demise? My attempts to find any owner prior to Mr. Bagwell were unsuccessful. It appeared that all previous owners were now passed away and my attempts to uncover past history on N49750 had come to an end. Or, so I thought.
Goofing off one evening on the internet, I uncovered an individual with the same family name in the same town where N49750 was based when it was reported destroyed. After a few telephone calls, I located Mr. Hick’s son. He welcomed my inquiry and informed me that in the spring of 1960 an unfortunate thunderstorm produced hail large enough to destroy the aircraft’s fabric and rendered the aircraft unairworthy. It remained disassembled and stored until 1970 when the aircraft was reported destroyed by his dad to the FAA. The airframe and remaining few parts were sold by the family in 1988. The son had retained his dad’s old log book and had a picture of himself, his mom and dad with the airplane taken in 1960 when he was six years old. Copies of these were emailed to me.
The picture showed the son in the rear seat, his young mother in front, with Mr. Hicks standing by the cockpit door. Their cub had a white underbelly with black on top rounding out to the bottom of the front cowling in a paint scheme typical of 1960. It was a great family photo. Unfortunately, the son never flew, and upon his Dad’s passing, the aircraft was sold. Luckily, the new owner reserved the original N number assigned, N49750, which was available. The FAA had delisted the tail number once the L-4 was reported destroyed in 1970.
During February, 2003, George’s wife Skip passed away and George expressed his desire to sell their interest in the L-4 back to me, which was accomplished. Around this same time, I ran into a local Lexington A&P who was looking for a wintertime project and a deal was made. My interest began growing once again in the project. However, a few months passed and he was suddenly transferred to Denver. Back to square one.
One August afternoon soon thereafter, I ran into David Trapp, another local aviation enthusiast who was in the process of restoring a North American T-6, his second T-6 project. David proudly showed me his project at his hangar and I recounted the sad story of my L-4. David emphatically told me that the only way it would ever fly is if I restored it myself. Having no experience, this was almost impossible for me to do alone. In a very weak moment, David, with his desire to see old birds fly, made the commitment to help get the L-4 restored and flying. David enlisted the help, review, and guidance of a local A&P, P. J. Lacato, and a friend of his, Mark Thompson, to assist in the work. This began a fun two year restoration project.
Work began around 2003 Labor Day weekend. David had me begin by sanding the fuselage frame clean to the metal. This took almost two weeks of working weekends and a few weekday nights. I began questioning my commitment due to the level of hard work and the time requirement which was affecting my golf game and time at home. Aircraft restoration is a true commitment, I was finding out. The fuselage was finally sanded, primed, and in late fall it was onto the wings.
Upon inspection, the back spar in both wings were cracked, most of the ribs had damage and needed replacement, so the wings were both torn down. The spars were remanufactured, the ribs replaced, and the wings covered using the Stits Process.The time I spent in my hangar on those beautiful fall days rib stitching became enjoyable and great relaxation from work. Local airport interest in the project at my hangar increased and I made many new airport friends who periodically would stop by to check on our progress. Seeing progress being made only increased my excitement and commitment to the project and it became a lot of fun. Fall was quickly turning into winter, and David agreed to move the project into his heated hangar.
Since golf season was over, I began a routine of stopping by the hangar after work to spend a few hours each evening on the L-4. David and his finance, Carrie, would be there each evening after work as well to work on their T-6 restoration. Many evenings were spent working on airplanes, sharing stories, with Carrie preparing delicious late dinners. Occasionally, Debbie would join us at the hangar for dinner now declaring herself converted from a “golf widow” to an “airplane widow.”
During that winter, the project steadily progressed with the wings and tail surfaces completed. The panel, instruments, and engine were installed. The engine was started for the first time on late cold winter evening by David and Mark while I was away on a business trip. They emailed me a cool video of the first engine start, complete with sound. Excitement was building and I could not wait to get back to the hangar to see it run. Wings and tail surfaces were installed. Everything was coming together. Once rigging was completed, the fuselage was completely disassembled for final Stits cover.
The fuselage interior and exterior fabric cover was complete by the end of summer, 2004. Painting of the entire aircraft was begun during the fall. After research, I chose a silver standard military paint scheme adopted in 1945, with military markings, patterned after the very early L-4’s delivered by Piper. Painting was completed by year-end and final assembly was begun.
By early spring, 2005, the aircraft was coming together and looked great. A late spring completion was anticipated. Focus now shifted to paperwork. Ron Fortener, a Designated Aircraft Reviewer (DAR) was recommended by the FSDO and was contacted. P. J. assisted us through a number of Form 337’s to be filed. Since the original airworthiness certificate was surrendered in 1970, a new one was applied for and a conformity inspection was required. Ron first visited at the end of May and made a list of mostly paperwork modifications that would be needed. The big request was to have both Piper and Continental reissue data plates on both airframe and engine, a requirement we did not anticipate. This process took several weeks, a number of telephone calls and faxes, and was finally accomplished by the middle July.
Ron visited once again on August 2, 2005, completed the conformity inspection and issued an Airworthiness Certificate. After 45 years of sitting in barns and basements, N49750 was prepared once again to return to the air.
Enthusiasm among my airport buddies had been growing anticipating the L-4’s first flight. My desire was to make the flight myself with just David and I around with no family or friends to make me nervous. David and I chose the next evening to make the fight.
That next evening was beautiful, but hot, with temperatures in the 90’s. As we prepared, Carrie arrived with sacks of chips, dip, and beer for a post flight celebration. Debbie was on her way back that evening from Dallas, visiting our daughter, and I did not tell her of the flight to keep her from being nervous. Slowly my airport buddies started showing up, one by one, and before I knew it 11 were gathered to see the first flight. Jokes and prayers were generously offered and the flight was fast becoming a reality show. I was nervous and did not want this much attention.
The first flight profile had already been prepared. David had prearranged the flight with the control tower to coordinate with other airport traffic and the tower personnel greatly assisted even allowing our entourage to go out to the runway to film and witness. Although confident of every nut and bolt in the aircraft, I nervously went through my head every contingency plan imaginable, hoping N49750 would fly.
Taxiing out, all I could think of was all the fun work and good times that went into the restoration of this aircraft. Don’t mess it up now! Power was applied and the L-4 was at 200 feet before I realized it. It flew great with perfect rigging and trim. What fun to fly!
Going around the pattern, the oil pressure remained on the low side, so landing clearance was requested and granted. A perfect landing was made. This old L-4 flew like the new aircraft it was. Everyone was there to greet me upon rollout. Debbie even arrived shortly after the flight to learn of my survival. This former, hopeless piece of junk was now a beautiful flying bird.
Carrie videoed the entire flight and we all went to a local pub to review the flight, watch the video, and continue the celebration. Two years of fun and hard work had paid off.
This was not just my project. The L-4 would not be flying without the support of others. Debbie sacrificed the most by surviving many lonely evenings by herself when I was at the airport. She allowed me many hours for the project and much patience. David’s assistance, discipline, and vast restoration knowledge proved invaluable and he kept me to the task. Mark’s knowledge and help also greatly contributed to the beautiful aircraft. Carrie kept our strength up with many great meals, her enthusiasm for the project, and her everlasting encouragement. Many airport friends provided much emotional support including Betty Moseley, George and Cathy Smith, and others.
Several more flights were subsequently conducted with the oil pressure still not performing as desired so the decision was made to overhaul the engine. By year-end, 2005, the overhauled engine was reinstalled and ran perfect with consistent oil pressure readings. Problem solved!
We all look forward to many fun flying years so keep an eye out for L-4 N49750 in the sky!