Author: Michael Phillips

The Champ is back! A story of a Father, his Son and the airplane that they share

Tailwheel Endorsement & Flight Review

As 2019 was winding down I received a telephone call from Joel Elliott. He had not flown for over twenty years. Was in need of a Flight Review, a Tailwheel Endorsement and more. The goal to fly the 1946 Champ that he had just restored.

Over the next three months he shared the story behind the airplane and the passion that had driven him to complete this tribute to his Father. As I was conceiving this post I asked Joel to put this story in writing. What follows is a wonderful story about a man, a family and the airplane that was part of their life.

N81927 circa 1963
Jacque Elliott circa 1963 or 1964

Jacque Elliott~The First Restoration

The earliest logbook entry I found was dated March 17, 1954.   Where or what the Champion had been doing between its roll out at the factory eight years earlier has been lost in time.  What I do know is that the entry shows it had an estimated total airframe time of 1500 hours and had been completely recovered with Grade A cotton and Butyrate dope.  Another interesting discovery was that aa “belly tank” had been installed which indicated it was used for aerial application.   

My father Jacque Elliott bought it from John Wells of the Central Valley Airport in Mercedes, Texas.  The original bill of sale shows my father bought it for $10 in 1962! 

From what my sister tells me, the plane was in pieces and my father restored it in the carport of our house and she remembers helping him brush on the Nitrate dope. He converted it to a “7DC” which allowed for the installation of a C-85-12F with an electric starter and a whopping 15-amp generator. This gave him the amperage to install position lights, radio and a landing light.   He had the wings covered by a local repair shop and had the wing tips “clipped” and a new factory approved set of fiberglass wingtips.   

I never thought to ask how he came up with the paint scheme, but he painted it with Randolph’s Tennessee Red and Juneau White.  He always had a “visual eye” which my own daughter got.   

I don’t know if it was his intention, but he used the Champ to tow his friend in his glider and as well as some banner towing. He flew up and down the state of Texas when Lyndon Baines Johnson was running for the United States congress. He also did aerial photography using a military surplus high-altitude camera from World War II for the county agricultural department.

Earliest Memories

Some of my earliest memories are of he and I going to the airport and going flying.  My mother didn’t seem to think anything about him taking a three-year-old out flying in a plane he restored in the carport.  Having been a Navy veteran serving as a tail gunner in SBD-3 Dauntless dive bomber’s at the Battle of the Coral Sea launching off the USS Lexington. Eventually, as an NCO flying Hellcats out Corpus Christi Naval Air Station must have given her faith in him and his flying abilities.  

We moved to North Texas in 1965 and the Champion came with us.   My father went to work for Southern Airways as a civilian pilot at Fort Walters, in Mineral Wells, teaching regular Army student pilots how to fly helicopters.  He made an arrangement with a local farmer to rent a pasture and we had our own air strip. He and I would go flying to Possum Kingdom dam and then to Rangerville, Texas for breakfast and then back home. My father installed an ultra-low volume spray unit on the Champ and sprayed pecans and cattle with Malathion.

At times, my sister and I would help my dad pull the wings off the plane, mount them on the pick-up truck and hook the tail up to the tow hitch and we’d pull the plane into town so he could do work on it at home. It all seemed to us to be perfectly normal yet looking back, we got a lot of strange looks from people.

At one point, my father came home and said that he’d been made an offer to trade the Champ for a boat.  There was a resounding “No way” from my sister and me.    “Doble” was like a brother to us. The Champ went everywhere we went as a family.  Our Champ had been given the name “Doble” pronounced like “noble”.   The story I was told is that when I was younger, I couldn’t pronounce my first name, Joel. It sounded more like “Doble” and So I named the Champ Doble. 

My father and I were the last to fly in it in 1977. He asked if I wanted to go fly down to Padre Island and go fishing. Padre Island didn’t have an airport, you landed on the beach.  This was something my father and mother use to do in a Stearman he owned before buying the Aeronca.

Relegated to the Back of the Hanger

Sometime after that flight, my father decided to pull the wings off and stored Doble in the back of the hangar.  He was too busy as a crop duster to fly it and I was more interested in surfing and girls.

Champ in CA before the restoration
“Doble” in California and in need of some TLC

My father passed away in 1998 and the only thing I wanted was the Champ.   I brought it to California, in 2004, and planned to restore it. Unfortunately, family and work got in the way.   The real work wouldn’t begin until 2016. Since my father had made changes in the Champ customizing it his way, I decided to do some small things too. The goal was to update everything that could be updated and yet keep the original color scheme. First, I went with Stits Polyfiber cover system instead of the Grade A cotton and Nitrate/Butyrate dope.  Second, I wanted to do the O-200 conversion STC that gave the C-85 more torque.  

Joel Elliott~The Second Restoration

My initial budget and what I thought I’d spend was, what I thought would be realistic. I knew I could do the covering and paint work myself, which I did.   However, the engine was another story. My Mechanic at Whiteman airport is John Clausen and together we disassembled the engine and sent everything off for inspection.  The first bad news, the cam shaft was beyond limits. Then I got the call from the cylinder shop telling me I had four “boat anchors” aka cylinders and what did I want to do with them since they were cracked and could not be repaired? I had to sit down once I heard the price for 4 new cylinders.  Apparently, there has been a surge in C-85’s being used in restorations and the price of C-85 cylinders has gone up.  But, J & J Air Parts in Pleasanton, Texas told me that the O-200 cylinder and C-85 cylinder are the identical except that the O-200 had “3” valve springs instead of 2 per valve and would be less expensive. Score! The block was good and came back yellow tagged. “Phew” was all I could say. I found an NOS camshaft for the C-85 for $900 on eBay in its original box!  That was more good news. 

Restoration
The real work of restoration began in 2016

My dad had been using a Stromberg carburetor and Eisenman magnetos. I changed them all for a more modern one, a Marvel Scribner carb with an accelerator pump and a set of Bendix mags.  All were sent off for servicing and yellow tagging.

I got rid of the original starter and generator and installed the lightweight B & C starter and 60-amp alternator. 

Restoration
…smells coming out of the cockpit were a mixture of Malathion, dust and rat droppings.

When it came time to disassemble the fuselage, I carefully took measurements and photographed everything prior to removing the old envelope.   The smells coming out of the cockpit were a mixture of Malathion, dust and rat droppings. A real mess to say the least. All the wood on the airframe had to be replaced.  Some wood pieces I bought from Aircraft Spruce and some I made.  The instrument’s were sent off for rebuilding and calibration and the fuselage bead blasted and primed with an aircraft grade epoxy primer.  The landing gear oleo struts where also sent off for rebuilding at an authorized repair station. 

The wings were stripped of the cloth and all the metal parts removed, bead blasted and primed.  The spars were inspected for rot and the “one time” inspection for rib nails coming out.  A new coat of wood varnish was applied to the spars and then everything reassembled.  New leading edges from Wag Aero were installed as the originals were too beat up.

I built a paint booth out of 2” PVC and painter plastic and did all the covering and paint work in my hangar.  The old saying that if you want to finish a project, “you have to make it a point to work on it every day” is so true.   I’d get off work and come out to the hangar and put four hours in.  Saturday and Sunday were eight-hour days. I was on target to have it done in 3 years.  But a new job got in the way and it took another two years before all was done and it was time to assemble the plane.  This happened in September and October of 2019.  I can say with certainty that it was a complete ground up restoration. I was able to polish out the original canopy.  I had to be careful to not cause more damage.   While I can see some micro fractures, it’s hardly noticeable when you’re sitting in the cockpit.

Joel Elliott
I’d get off work and come out to the hangar and put four hours in.  Saturday and Sunday were eight-hour days.

I have installed wing tip strobes and upgraded my radio along with the required transponder with Mode C and a uAvionix taillight to enable me to fly in Airspace that requires ADS-B. 

March 29, 2020~Back in the Air!

First flight after restoration
March 29, 2020 Whiteman Airport

The first flight launched on Sunday March 29, 2020 and was “uneventful”.   I had been going around and round about having someone else do the first flight instead of myself.  I wanted to do it since my father would have been the first to do it after he had restored it.   I was doing high speed taxi tests the week before and finally decided to go for it.   I prepared for this by driving around the airport scouting possible locations to put down should it be necessary, doing emergency procedure drills while sitting in the cockpit and remembering to “never try to turn back” to the airport.  If I lost the engine, I would put it down in a spot I had scouted out.  I had another pilot also preflight the plane as I had done.  Pulled the inspection covers, the hole thing.   

I taxied out, did the run up, called the tower and requested a high-speed taxi test to help get the oil temperature up, had my friend come over and open the door to check everything with me one last time. With daughter and friends looking on, I called the tower and requested a “box pattern” for the first flight.

The tower approved the box pattern and cleared me for take off.   I taxied into position lining up with the center line and slowly applied full throttle.   The tail came up almost immediately, I smoothly applied back pressure and Doble lifted off!  I initially maintained an 80 mph climb on the upwind leg to get the feel of the plane.   

There was no noticeable “wing heaviness” in either wing, I must have rigged it correctly, but I did have to apply some left rudder.  The trim tab might need adjusting.  I started to trim the elevators and got a surprise.   I had the cables opposite what they should be, down was up and up was down. This wasn’t something catastrophic, so I continued climbing to my assigned altitude and flew.

After 20 minutes, I called the tower and made a length wise pass down the runway for pictures and then came in and landed.  I took the plane back up Monday and Tuesday and then work and the weather has me grounded. I’m limiting myself to “learning” the plane in calm winds for right now.

No Longer in the Back Seat

There is something inherently cool about this, going from a passenger whom sat in the back seat looking at my dad from behind, as he flew us around to different places, to now being the person who is doing the flying.   It’s not surreal, feels more like the completion of a loop coming full circle. 

  

Flying airplanes in Alaska is like leaving home for college only better!

In the beginning…

This is the perfect picture to begin this post. Brittany Wilderom, it was her way of leaving home for college only better. This is the next chapter in a story that started a number of years ago in her quest to become a professional pilot.

I do not remember when we met, but it must have been about eight years ago. In an early conversation she mentioned that her dream was to be a Missionary Pilot and she was in the early stages of her quest to achieve this dream. She was full of enthusiasm,  short on money and would go on to work at many different jobs to pay for her training.

One of my earliest memories is seeing her driving the fuel truck for Western Cardinal around the Camarillo airport. A young women driving a fuel truck, servicing airplanes, was unusual and for me memorable. It was clear to me that she was willing to do whatever it took to earn her wings. One of the requirements of becoming a Missionary Pilot was that you had to possess an A&P rating in order to work on the airplane that you would be flying in remote parts of this world. So, she gets a job as an A&P assistant to learn and earn her way to her goal. Suffice it to say that she was very creative and found many ways to fly and to build her hours. During this time she fell in love with flying tailwheel airplanes, especially the Cub.

So you want to be an airline Captain?

Catherine Airline Captain

You learn how to fly, you get an instrument, commercial and a multi-engine rating. You have less than 500 hours in your logbook. Then what? Go to Hawaii and interview for a job, right? Not many people that I know would do this. But what do I know? Catherine did exactly this and as chance would have it, she was offered a position as second in command flying Cessna Caravan’s. During the interview she was told that she needed to improve her skills flying a G1000 instrument suite and that she needed to make it happen ASAP. So what did she do?

She flew home California to figure out a plan to master the G1000, improve her instrument skills and then go back to Hawaii in less than two months.

This is where our story begins.

Catherine came to my office around Thanksgiving 2017 and shared her challenge with me. We put together a plan, based on guidance that I had received from her potential employer and to enhance the skills that she felt needed some attention.

All of our training together was conducted in a Redbird FMX AATD with a G1000 avionics suite. Catherine was totally focused on success. She not only needed to master the process and procedures of the G1000, in the instrument environment, she also needed to memorize the callouts and flows required as being part of a two pilot crew. The beauty of simulation is that we were able to accomplish this in the environment in which she would be flying, same approaches, airports, terrain. It was a challenge for her and fun for me because this was more than teaching, it was making it real for her. She shared that “I was pushing her to her limits by moving her out of her comfort zone.” She later shared that she was not going to “sugar-coat her feelings-there were several days that she was really frustrated.”

This training continued to the end of December. Then she was gone! I missed her energy, intensity, motivation and need to be as good as she could be. Then on January 16, 2018 I received a text from her saying that she was officially hired as a SIC pilot for Mokulele and a note saying all the hard work had paid off. The picture above was taken a few weeks later.

Over the next ten months we stayed in touch via text and she would send me images of her life flying between the islands. She was happy and moving closer and closer to her goal of upgrading to Captain.

This image was special because the note she sent with it said that they were being vectored to land on Runway 04 at Daniel K. Inouye International in Honolulu. It made me smile because we had done this very same approach (same visual) during our training in the simulator.

This is a very neat picture of a Blood Moon that she took just after relocating to Hawaii in January 2018. Nice picture of the Mokulele Cessna Caravan.

In October of 2018 I received a text from Catherine asking if I might have some time available in December, because she needed to prepare for her upgrade to Captain. Well of course I did. This time around she had matured as a pilot, and a person. She had almost a year of experience winging around the Hawaiian Islands, based on the Big Island of Hawaii, and knew exactly what she needed to do and how she wanted to approach her training. I really enjoyed seeing how much her confidence had improved and the quality of the questions she was asking. As we bid farewell, after our training I knew she was ready. She was a bit less sure but there was no doubt in my mind that I would be getting a text saying that she had successfully upgraded to Captain.

The smile and four stripes on her shoulders says it all. Congratulations Catherine! I look forward to watching you realize each step of your journey to becoming a Captain over and over again.

The smile says it all!

As a postscript to this story it is important to acknowledge the role that Catherine’s father played in this part of her journey. It is very expensive living in Hawaii, and we all know that entry level pilot positions do not pay all that well. We all should be so blessed with angels helping us along our path(s) to wherever we are going.

Full circle….

 

 

Twenty-two years ago I received a telephone call from a friend in Hickory NC. He mentioned that he had a young man on a bicycle racing team that he supported that he would like for me to talk to. His thinking was that I might be able to offer him some guidance and possibly be a mentor for him. I gladly agreed and the outcome of our first conversation has matured into a treasured friendship.

At the time we shared an interest in and a passion for bicycles and bicycle racing. I had a passion for flying and was a flight instructor. He had an interest in flying and wanted to be a Naval Aviator. As our relationship matured we shared many conversations but the one that meant the most to me, even to this day, was the one about the process that he was going through to be accepted into the Naval Aviation pilot training program. During one of our conversations I promised him that should he be accepted into the program I would join him for the ceremony and the “pinning of his wings” in Pensacola FL. He achieved his goal and on this special day I met Nik Fialka for the first time.

Ten days, hours of study, twenty-seven hours of flight training, Commercial Multi-Engine. Smiles all around!

Fast forward twenty-one years and I receive a phone call from Nik who is now a Commander in the Naval Reserve and is considering a career change. He has a young family, is a consultant to the Navy and is an owner of an RV Park in Pensacola. He is considering an opportunity to become an airline pilot and needs to add a multi-engine rating to his 2000 hours of helicopter and fixed wing experience in order to interview with a regional airline, and was asking for advice on how best to approach the process. I had access to a Diamond Twin Star and told him that if he came to California we would train him for the rating and get the requisite number of hours necessary to qualify for an interview. As I was saying this I did not have a multi-engine instructor rating as I had never been in a situation where it was required but had been trying to get myself in shape for the checkride. Now I had a reason and a deadline because he was arriving at LAX on July 14. It is amazing what can be accomplished in a short period of time when there is no other option. The process was a perfect example of “ready-fire-aim” and I completed my checkride on the afternoon of the 14th, picked Nik up at LAX later that evening and we began his training on the 15th.

Nik had been a fixed wing instructor at Pensacola and understood that we had a big task in front of us especially since it had been nine years since he had flown a fixed wing aircraft. The aircraft that he would be training in was nothing like the trainers he had flown at Pensacola. This twin engine airplane had a glass cockpit and enough other differences to challenge any pilot, we had our work cut out for us.

As I completed my check-ride I scheduled his check-ride with the same examiner for July 25. We had ten days to get him ready. Nine years away, sophisticated avionics, rusty instrument skills and an entirely unfamiliar airspace environment. Not exactly ideal for this challenge. Thank goodness that he is a Navy trained pilot. I am convinced that without the training foundation that he had there is no way that we could have accomplished the goal. Nonetheless, ten days and twenty-seven flight hours later we had accomplished what we set out to do, a multi-engine rating with instrument privileges.

Nik, Greg and a very old Smith Corona. It is almost official…

It was not easy and without the help of a number of people, a goal that was sealed in stone and some good fortune we would not have been able to make this happen. But we did and for everyone that played a role in this process we are sincerely grateful. My extraordinary wife made sure that we could focus only on flying, Rick Kolker for preparing me for my checkride, Omar Lala who worked with Nik on the instrument flying while I was away on another engagement and Greg Lewis our DPE who was patient and understanding as we navigated a last minute challenge with Nik’s license.

On Wednesday July 26 Nik and I flew to Hawthorne in the DA42 so that he could get a Lyft to LAX for his flight home. On July 28 Nik submitted his paperwork to begin the process for consideration by the airline of his choice. On August 1 he received a notification that he has been selected as a prospective candidate for a pilot position with his chosen airline. On Tuesday August 8 Nik received a pre-offer of employment with Envoy Air (American Airlines) pending a background review.

This was an achievement years in the making and I am thrilled that we were able to bring it full circle.