Saving a Grasshopper

Saving a Grasshopper

by Paul Smith


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Saving a Grasshopper by Paul Smith

"We cursed the little dark green, high-wing aeroplanes. We knew that one of them in the area would precede a barrage and we tried our hardest to shoot them down. We dreaded those little observation aeroplanes- they were the angels of death to us."

-Captured German Officer, 10th SS Panzer, after Falaise.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466975644
Publisher: Trafford Publishing
Publication date: 02/26/2013
Pages: 88
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.21(d)

Read an Excerpt

Saving a Grasshopper

By Paul Smith

Trafford Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Paul Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4669-7564-4


We find her

It all started innocently enough. I really wasn't looking for a way to throw away all my money. I was a well-rounded, conservative-minded married man with simple dreams and wishes for the future. I had no family history of mental illnesses, (other than that one uncle in West Virginia ...), and there was no indication that I might sell the clothes off my back and toss the money into a hole. It wasn't my fault. I was partners with a good friend in a 1942 Aeronca L-3. We bought her in 1994 after George Preston in Virginia did a really bang-up job in restoring her. For a short time, we had her out on the line for instruction and rental at the old Control Aero at Frederick, Maryland. Shortly thereafter, one of the owners absconded with the cash box and fled to South America (Literally!) and the business went "Tango Uniform". My partner, about this time, qualified for his Airframe and Powerplant mechanic certificate (A&P), and went into business at Winchester, Virginia.

We moved the old Airknocker around to several airports, trying to find a home for her and settled at Keymar (MD-42), a very tidy, (except when it snows) 1800 foot grass strip perched about 12 miles North of Frederick. To find Keymar on a chart, just look for the Prohibited Area that's North of Dulles. That's P-40. Camp David. That particular land mine has separated hundreds of unsuspecting pilots from their Pilot Certificates and has kept the Dulles and Baltimore FAA Flight Standards guys gleefully occupied for many years. Now look at the eastern boundary. Right out there on the edge at 3 o'clock. That's where Keymar is.

So anyway, Dennis Young runs the place and Ol' Dennis keeps a nice, easy going plane patch. He keeps threatening to get his Pilot Certificate and actually appears to be doing it. He always wanted his very own airplane to put on his very own airport to go with all of the ultralights, light sports, and powered parachutes that congregate there.

I'm an instructor and used to work for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, (AOPA) down in Frederick, and Dennis called one day to remind me that hangar rent was overdue again, it being the third week of the month and all. After casually observing that pilots with broken legs don't get to fly much, he asked if I might know where he might find a Cub in the local area. Now, my partner was by that time an established dealer in Winchester and was a pretty good "go to" guy if you happened to be in the market. I called him and asked him to keep an eye out for a J-3 for Dennis. I told him what Dennis had said about pilots with broken limbs, which Pete already knew, as he races motorcycles, and has had extensive experience in that regard. Pete said there happened to be a Swiss taildragger in the next hangar for sale. I reminded him that it was his turn to pay the rent, asked him to get the numbers on the airplane and call me back.

He called back and said he didn't know what this thing was. He figured it was a Swiss copy of a Cub. The data plate said it was a Piper, but he wasn't certain it was legit. It looked a little bit like a Cub, but it wasn't really like anything he'd ever seen before. The owner wanted a lot, and it had a 90 hp Continental and it was covered in 10 year old linen. I called Dennis back and he wasn't interested in recovering a whatever-it-is for a lot. He wanted something that he could jump in and fly for less than a lot. I called Pete back and told him that Dennis was a no-go on this one. He replied that he'd looked at it again and that it was, in fact, a heavily-modified 1944 Piper L-4H, was only painted in Swiss colors, and wasn't a Swiss built airplane. I immediately perked up and took interest.

I had no idea I was an addiction waiting to happen and that my button had just been pushed.

Several years before, when we bought the L-3, I really wanted to hold out for an L-4. We wanted to buy a tailwheel airplane that we could rent out and that I could instruct in. No other flight school in the DC area had one. However, the L-3 was a legitimate Liaison Aircraft, and it was available, so we bought it. The term "Liaison Aircraft" is the collective label that the military used to describe light, low-powered aircraft that could be used for a multitude of purposes. I remembered that I'd read that most of the combat liaison aircraft that ended up in Germany after the war—hundreds of L-4s had been sold to a company in Switzerland that resold them all over Europe. There was an excellent chance that this L-4 was one of those airplanes! I'd always dreamed of getting one, and this one just about HAD to be a combat airplane. Nobody would have sent one from here to Switzerland after the war. The L-4s that are over there are just about all WWII surplus. It's very rare to see an L-4 flying around at all anymore. They got sold off after the war and were literally used up. They are so rare, that many of the ones you see these days are actually civilian J-3 Cubs that somebody has turned into an L-4 replica by adding extra windows. Here this was an actual military L-4 practically falling in my lap. It hadn't even been advertised for sale yet.

Like thousands of pilots, I'd learned to fly tailwheel in a J-3 Cub. I'd dreamed of owning one, and had tried when we wanted to buy a tailwheel airplane, but the little Aeronca had come along first. There are many reasons, both tangible and intangible, that make people hold those little Piper airplanes almost in awe. Some prefer the civilian J-3, but for me it had to be the military model.

Certainly the army saw something in the little "Grasshopper" airplanes and ordered them by the thousands for service. There were over 5,500 L-4s alone used by all services during WWII. Years before, the first thing I did before the ink dried on my brand-new Private Pilot Certificate was to look for the nearest airport that had a Cub for rent, and learn to fly it.


We find out Who She is - and was

For my part, I have always been a history buff, and especially military history. I shot Civil War weapons in competition, and collected Civil War uniforms and equipment. Worked for the National Park Service as a ranger for 16 years until I was disabled out. Having spent 15 of those years working at 19th Century Parks on what we called the "Cannonball Circuit", I got durned good and tired of the Civil War. Sold all my muskets and gear and started collecting WWI and WWII US weapons and equipment. Finding a WWII "L Bird" was the perfect airplane, combining my two passions in life, flying and military history. Almost like it was meant to be somehow. Somebody who just wanted to lease out a taildragger for rent could have bought it and none of this would have happened. But the fickle finger pointed at me and my life went to ruin.

Pete and I decided to sell the L-3 and buy this L-4. He had looked it over and was sure we could paint it green and everything would be fine. He just wanted a 90 hp Cub to bomb around the sky in. Little did he know ... In the back of my mind, I'd had a feeling that that 10 year old linen wouldn't pass muster, and that it would involve a little bit more than green paint. Little did I know! About restoring antique airplanes, we were as babes in the woods. Experience is a cruel teacher. Expensive, too.

HB-ONC was her Swiss registry. She was first registered as a civilian aircraft in 1947 by a flight school at Altenrhine on Lake Constance. Towed sport gliders for a living until the 90's. She was a working airplane, flown by a professional pilot all those years, which is probably why, even with 12,000 hours on the airframe, she was still in prime condition. Can you imagine getting 12,000 hours flying 10 minutes at a time up and down hauling gliders to 1000 meters all day? Tough way to make a living. They had changed her all around and modified the whole thing, cutting off the distinctive greenhouse windows and framework, putting in a 90 hp Continental engine because a 65 was a bit anemic for towing gliders in the Alps, I suppose. Also, after the war, there was a certain stigma attached to having to use war-surplus machinery for your business, so most military equipment was modified to look like something else. She sure didn't look like an L-4 when we first saw her. Then in the 90's, her owner retired her to a museum at the same airfield. Eventually, the owner moved all of his assets to the US and brought her home to be sold on the American market. That was about all we knew about her at the time. From Switzerland, he just happened to settle in Winchester, Virginia, right next door to Pete's shop. Just a couple of weeks before I called Pete looking for a Cub for Dennis. Talk about being in the right place at the right time ...

I had left AOPA by then and went to work for the Smithsonian to finish out my federal retirement. Ended up downtown at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM). There are some very dedicated people there, and one of them was Dan Hagedorn up in the library. I went to him with a small request: I found this old airplane. How do I find out if it's an army airplane and its service history? (Oh Brother-not another one!) Dan laid out a thumbnail sketch of how to go about it. First I had to get the manufacturer's serial number from the aircraft's Data Plate. That I had. Then a letter to the Air Force Museum at Wright—Pat requesting that they send me what they had. They responded with the Army Number, which was also known as the "tail number". She had been known to the army as 44-79731. Normally, I would have then had to write to the Air Force Historical Research Agency down at Maxwell in Montgomery, Alabama to get any information that was recorded on the Individual Aircraft Record or "Data Card". However, as luck would have it, the NASM Library had a microfilm copy of the entire record and 10 minutes later I had a hard copy in my hand and Dan was explaining what all the codes meant. He pointed out the day it rolled out the door at Lock Haven, the day it was accepted by the army, the serial number, the date she was sent to Newark, the date she embarked on a ship, the date she was assigned to the 8th Air Force for distribution, which was probably the date she got to England, the date she was assigned to Army Ground Forces, and the date she was dropped from the inventory in 1946. This told us a couple of additional things. First, by the date, we would later determine what ship she sailed on, the S.S. Bulkcrude, a T3 tanker. Next, the fact that she went to Army Ground Forces meant that she had been an artillery spotter. And last, having landed in England just after D-Day, it was almost impossible that she did not serve in combat.

What Dan didn't tell me was at least as important as what he did tell me. The hard truth is that for 99% of military aircraft owners, the data card is the end of the line. There just isn't any more information. Things like the unit assignments, campaigns participated in, the name of the pilot, the real meat of the history, no longer exists. If he had told me that, I probably would have stopped looking. I was really tickled with what I had.

The two combatant sections of the Army were the Army Air Forces and the Army Ground Forces. The USAAF was in charge of the bombers, fighters and trainers that you always think of as warbirds. The AGF had L-birds. The USAAF had meticulous records of where an aircraft was sent, who it served with and just about everything an owner could want to know. The AGF, not so much.

The problem is if it was an Army Air Forces bird, the airplane probably didn't do anything during the war. You see, somebody had to save that airplane from the scrap heap. They bought that airplane for a reason. The people who bought surplus airplanes weren't interested in the history of the airplane they were buying; they were interested in buying a cheap airplane in good shape. They didn't go for the one that was all busted up with worn out engines from getting shot at all over Europe, they went for the brand new one that never made it out of the depot and had 10 hours on the engines. The combat veterans are the ones that got scrapped first because nobody wanted them. That's why all the B-17s that are flying today are late-war G models. All the earlier ones are beer cans.

Most WWII airplanes in the US today are actually "painted as" ... such and such. What the owner has done is he's chosen a tail number and markings of a similar airplane that flew in combat from a photograph or some other source and has his airplane painted up to look like that one. George Preddy's P-51 or John Thach's Wildcat—(there are about 3 of those flying around), or the B-17 Memphis Belle. The airplanes that survived, survived because they had no combat damage. Or history. There are plenty of combat records, but the airplanes they belong to are long gone.

It is even worse for an L-bird owner. There are a few of them left, but nobody knows what they did. First of all, very few L-4s were brought home. Most combat L-Birds served their time, flew their missions, and were sold off as scrap after it was all over. They weren't worth the space or the work to haul them back home. They were obsolete by then anyway, so the Army didn't want them. Second, to the Army Ground Forces, L-Birds were expendable. They were like jeeps. If you pranged one, they sent you a brand new one. If you wrecked that one, they'd give you another one, no questions asked. Nobody cared. A B-29 cost over $600,000. You wreck one of them, they ask questions. A $2000 L-4? Big deal. Plus, the Army Ground Forces had never had to keep track of aircraft before. They didn't understand that the maintenance records of an airplane were far more of a life and death matter than the lubrication records of a deuce and a half. They treated them like they did all their other vehicles. So, like all army "vehicles", the records were kept in a pouch in the airplane. When the airplane was sold, there went the records. Consequently, information on where an individual aircraft was sent or who it served with wasn't permanently recorded outside of the local unit unless something out of the ordinary happened to the aircraft or pilot. Were the airplane destroyed by an enemy aircraft, or the pilot killed, the aircraft number might have been noted in the daily report, but maybe not. And even if it had been, most of those reports were destroyed after the war, so nobody has them today. Even if the aircraft was written off, nobody cared about the old one, they just needed to get another to take its place. Few permanent records were kept of the tail numbers, and the ones that were kept, have since been destroyed. As a result, there just isn't any way for an AGF aircraft owner today to find out where his airplane served. Most guys who have experience with military antique aircraft know this and don't bother trying to dig up anything beyond the individual record card information. They know it's a dry hole. But I didn't know any better, so I kept looking. I figured somebody would have something in a dusty file somewhere. So for a long time, I wrote lots of letters, got lots of polite "Are you kidding?" replies. Slowly, I began to realize that this wasn't going to be so easy. However, by this time, I was fired up about researching the history, so I kept at it.

Having owned an L-3, I had read Ken Wakefield's books on liaison aircraft in WWII. I figured that since I was striking out on the official level, I might as well try the private sector. Ken is a retired airline driver living in Wales and has more or less made it his life's work to research and tell the story of these little warbirds. His books are very well researched, very well written, and easy to read with lots of pictures (Oh-Goody!) Lightplanes at War and Fighting Grasshoppers have become the standard by which all others are judged. And he's about to publish another one that will be full of specific information. They are easily THE best references for anyone interested in the subject. In addition to Ken's books, there are several excellent personal narrative books out there by former liaison pilots. Collectively, there is just enough information around to paint a broad picture of this part of history. But if you're an owner, there's just enough stuff out there to get you well and truly frustrated. It's enough to get you very interested, but the really important information for an individual aircraft owner just isn't around. It's a brick wall.

But, like I said, I didn't know any better at the time. So I got Ken's contact information through his publisher and wrote him a letter. Dan at Air and Space had come up with Colin Smith in England as a source and after several attempts; I got hold of him as well. Between the two of them, they had been keeping track of surviving L Birds in Europe. They knew a good bit about 44-79731, aka: HB-ONC and were well familiar with her. They were surprised to learn that she was now in the US.

Excerpted from Saving a Grasshopper by Paul Smith. Copyright © 2013 Paul Smith. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


The Air OP....................     5     

Introduction....................     7     

We find her....................     9     

We find out who she is - and was....................     12     

How bad is it?....................     22     

It is SO important to accessorize....................     27     

Work Progresses....................     31     

Work Progresses slowly....................     33     

How far do you go?....................     35     

Details, Details, Details....................     37     

Paint....................     38     

Camouflage....................     44     

Invasion Stripes....................     46     

Compromises....................     47     

Decisions, decisions....................     50     

From basket case to airplane....................     53     

The Windows....................     55     

STCs....................     59     

Wing root fairings....................     61     

The Door Latch....................     62     

The Battle of the FAA....................     64     

Provenance....................     68     

Displays....................     70     

A Last Minute Flash!!....................     73     

Fini....................     74     

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