January 20, 1999


We've got Fords, we've got Chevies and we've got Chryslers. These companies were the dominant automobile manufacturers and then they became our only manufacturers. Lincolns weren't Fords, and Cadillac wasn't just a Sunday Chevrolet. There were Kaisers, Hudsons, and Packards, and more, but they all faded away.

How about Piper, Cessna, and Beechcraft and Mooney? Much the same situation. Any light plane that isn't manufactured by one of these companies is an item of curiosity at the airport. Their arrival usually draws a second look or two, but the marketplace holds them at arms length because they are not familiar items. Except in the case of a truly exquisite design, "rare" usually translates as "not worth the hassle at repair time"

Lots of plane manufacturers almost made it. There are still many varieties of the Aeronca flying around. The Swift looked like a fighter plane. The Taylorcraft was designed to spite Piper. Stinson was yet another manufacturer who built many planes that survive to this day. The Ercoupe was designed as a "safety plane", and had no rudder controls to confuse the pilot. The Luscombes are often regarded as the first "everyman's airplane" that would cruise happily at 100 mph. Their owners presently enjoy excellent support from an owner's group that has purchased the original factory drawings, tooling, and production rights.

Most pilots who have been around a while can identify these planes, but what of the Porterfields, Rearwins, Interstates, Funks, and all the others that were never much more than a gleam in the designer's eye? Just like the aviation museums work with each other to optimize their prize airplanes, the owners of these planes all keep in touch, exchanging maintenance and operating information.

I own a Commonwealth, which was originally a Rearwin design, but produced mostly in 1946 by Commonwealth Aircraft, in Valley Stream, Long Island. In all, 358 of them were built in 1941, 45, and 46. I would guess that of the 130 known to remain, 75 are still airworthy.

The Commonwealth owners are a good group. A fellow in Pittsburgh writes a quarterly newsletter that disseminates the collected knowledge of about 40 of us. One fellow knows how to duplicate gentle bends of the engine cowling, another has an approved modification to move the rudder pedals forward for more legroom. Another has the full set of factory drawings. We have an over-all guru to fill in between the various specialists. Each issue brings many tidbits of important information.

As well as the newsletter, we have an e-mail address which automatically relays a question to all e-mail addresses in the group. Within two days, a question will usually produce half a dozen responses from the others. Most of them offer the wisdom of experience, some offer sympathy, and sometimes there is a request to "let me know how you fix it, because I have the same problem too".

Last week I received a reply to a question, but tagged onto it was a short note that "I flew your airplane in the 1960s..." The note was from a fellow who built a "Lunchbox Commonwealth" in 1950 from parts bought from the company's employees after the plant closed down. He no longer has the Commonwealth, but still has an interest. People become smitten with these planes.

My airplane's records are incomplete, and there are several clues that the plane had been laid up and left to the elements for parts of three decades. This fellow confirmed the clues and helped fill in that blank spot. He told me that the owner had damaged a wing taxiing it into a hangar at Towaco, NJ, in the late 60s and took the plane home for repairs which were never made. 20 years later, the owner had an auto accident and the car was repaired by a man who became interested in the now- derelict airplane. A deal was made, and the plane was restored to its proper place in the skies.

There is more to the story, but that is for another time. I have always been pleased with the flying qualities of my plane, but the airplane's most pleasant surprise has been the circle of new friends that surround it.

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