March 24, 1999

A Springtime Funk

It has been observed that our winters aren't too bad, it is our spring times that are so discouraging. A glance out the window this week suggests an element of truth to the statement. The sun is warm enough, though, that it wins every battle that it fights with the cold air. Even on days when it is obscured, it still burdens the beast of winter, defeating it in a slow war of attrition. The winter will end before the spring season is too old.

Activity at the airport is starting to pick up, but there is still much quality time to be spent there, involved with idle chit- chat. Sometimes we contemplate the mysteries of the ages, like why should a run- of- the- mill airplane be prized just because it is now rare? After all, there are few monoplanes of 100 or fewer horsepower that can match the over- all performance and utility of Wichita's smallest spam- can, the Cessna 150.

The question drifted into my mind the other day when I was at a friend's house, begging some repair material for my own plane. His basement workshop is neat because is too small to get messy, yet he has moved three airplanes through it in the last 10 years. His present restoration project is a 1946 Funk.

In many ways, the story of the Funk answers the question of why the old birds are sought after. True, they are mere machines, and don't have souls or personality, but they do have a story. Typically the planes were made in small numbers and were made under the eye of their designer, usually a man who was balancing the romance of aviation against the realities of business. I can't be sure if interesting people get into situations like that, or whether such situations make people interesting. In any case, you can call it the Pet Rock Syndrome, where an ordinary object is wrapped in a clever story and instantly becomes adorable.

The story of the Funk, and the Funk brothers who designed and built it, even passes through Elmira. It turns out that the Funks started their aerial adventures by building and flying gliders, a not too uncommon start for that era. Among other enthusiasts, they were drawn to the area after General Jimmy Doolittle experienced strong updrafts bouncing off of the hills south of Elmira as he approached the Caton Avenue airstrip in an army fighter plane. Glider people, the Funks among them, realized that winds which would push a well- piloted pursuit aircraft around the sky would be ideal for soaring.

The Funks were present at Elmira's inaugural glider meet in 1930, and returned three years later with their two seat glider, reportedly the first such craft designed and built in this country. It was an adaptation of this glider design that was mated with a three cylinder Szekely radial engine in 1938, to become the first Funk airplane.

Their airplane had some efficiencies and refinements that resulted from its glider ancestry, and these qualities were given a higher priority than eye appeal. It had big thick wings that loved to fly, and the fuselage was somewhat pudgy, but neatly streamlined with a thicket of stringers and formers under its cotton cloth skin.

Unfortunately, the design spent most of its life searching for an engine. It was too big for the "flat four" engines which were introduced at about that time, and eventually became the dominant small engine design. The Funk was too small, and perhaps too plain, for the smallest radial engines then being produced.

The brothers first tried to solve their engine problem themselves with their Funk model B engine, a clever and ambitious adaptation of the engine produced at the Ford plant across town from their shop. They worked hard, and did well, but in the end the engine could not produce more than 70 horsepower, just short of what was considered as satisfactory. Still, it was the best engine available and many Funks were fitted with it. These Funks were the last airplanes to be factory- certified with an automobile based engine.

Near the end of their production in 1946, Funks were fitted with Continental's new 85 horsepower engine, which most people found to be satisfactory. The game was over, though. The post-war aviation boom fell apart, and all but a few manufacturers fell by the wayside. The survivors were the designs that were recognized as having the best looks, the best performance, and the best price. The Funk, designed by a couple of Katzenjammer Kids from the Midwest who cared more about aerodynamics than good looks, slipped into history in aviation's greatest mass extinction.

My friend has been busy all winter with his Funk, and the project is starting to come together for him this month. For the rest of us, the best we can hope is that our own early- spring funks fade away with the greening of the grass and the sunrise chorus of the returning songbirds.

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