Surrounded by the husks of vintage planes that stand as fascinating as dinosaur skeletons, the restorer of antique aircraft is working to save the corroded brake unit of a 1929 Fairchild KR-34C biplane he is rebuilding for a Wyoming collector. That's why aviation buffs call King. It seems he can salvage just about anything.
Flying meticulously restored or replicated Tri-Motors, Sikorsky flying boats and other models from the 1920s and 1930s, King and dozens of pilots from more than 20 states and Canada are to land their aerial flotilla in Maryland beginning at noon today at the Frederick Municipal Airport as part of National Air Tour 2003. The caravan will depart for Pittsburgh tomorrow.
The revived tour took flight Sept. 8 from an airport outside Detroit and - if weather and equipment cooperate - is expected to finish there Wednesday after a 4,000-mile journey through 25 cities.
Sponsored by automobile manufacturer Henry Ford to boost public confidence in the fledging beginnings of commercial aviation, the original National Air Tour was held annually from 1925 to 1931. The cross-country flights countered the popular perception of airplanes as risky contraptions flown by daring military pilots and barnstormers, demonstrating them as safe and reliable alternatives to the railroad.
The tour descended on Baltimore twice, once in 1927 and again in 1929, and had been scheduled to visit Frederick in 1932, but the onset of the Great Depression depleted tour funding.
More than 70 years later, King and the roving band of pilots will close the final chapter of the landmark tour by navigating what would have been its 1932 route, minus a stop in Kill Devil Hills, near Kitty Hawk, which was canceled because of Hurricane Isabel.
The 17-day mission is sponsored by the Minneapolis-based Aviation Foundation of America to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Organizers said the event aims to rekindle excite- ment in the aviation industry - which has been hampered by slumping profits and post-9/11 flight restrictions - by generating public fascination in the Golden Age of flight, a period from 1919 to 1939.
Aviation enthusiasts and historians say the era has been largely forgotten.
"All of us who are in the hobby or business [of restoring planes] kind of lament the lack of interest in it," King, 41, said during a recent visit to his barn workshop in Culpeper, Va.
When it comes to flight history, most think of the Wright brothers before their minds jump to the impressive bombers and jet planes of World War II - neglecting the period of innovation that preceded it, according to Bob van der Linden, early aviation curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
"Everything we know today about aviation was basically created [during the Golden Age]," van der Linden said. "When it started, aviation was an interesting novelty. By the end of the period, it was a necessity."
In the span of two decades, van der Linden noted, wood-and-fabric biplanes evolved into all-metal aircraft with such advanced features as air-cooled radial engines, retractable landing gear and air brakes.
By the late 1920s, the age of the airplane was taking hold, but during the dire economic times of the Great Depression, travel by air was a luxury enjoyed primarily by businessmen, movie stars and the wealthy. Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 from New York to Paris had sparked public excitement in airplanes, but many had not seen them up close, let alone flown in one until the National Air Tour arrived in town with pilots offering pleasure rides.
It was common for thousands of people to crush in on the local airfield or perch on rooftops to watch the parade of planes - a contrast in construction, colors and manufacturing features - roar from above by ones and twos. More than 10,000 Baltimoreans, dressed in their best clothes, assembled in Dundalk at Logan Field (now Logan Shopping Center) to greet the arrival of 43 planes in 1929.
In addition to the wondrous machines, spectators were exposed to a hodgepodge of goggle-clad pilots in leather flying helmets, some of them women, and memorable passengers such as Jimmy Whirlwind - a diminutive monkey named after the Whirlwind aircraft motor - who arrived at Logan Field aboard a Waco biplane July 1, 1927.
"At first, Jimmy was terrified of the noise and was far from appreciating the pleasures of the trip," The Sun reported the day after. "Yesterday, however, he recovered his equanimity, and on the run to Baltimore spent much of his time with one paw shading his eyes, looking out of the window, while immediately after his plane landed he enjoyed a banana, seated on the ground under the cockpit."
King won't have a monkey with him when he lands on the grass runway in Frederick, but he will be flying the oldest plane in this year's tour, a 1926 Ryan M-1, which was used by Pacific Air Transport (now United Airlines) to carry mail and passengers between Los Angeles and Seattle.
King, who learned to fly before getting a driver's license, had yearned for a Ryan since high school and set out in 1994 to build one. A friend told him that an airline pilot in Lovettsville, Va., Bob Buck, owned an original model and recommended King pay him a visit.
He was doubtful at first because only 28 of the aircraft were built, but was pleasantly surprised to find the plane's rusty fuselage hanging in Buck's shed. Buck gave King the aging remains and by 1995, using the fuselage and an original strut, King began the tedious task of rebuilding the plane. He completed the project in 2001 - 3,500 work hours and $60,000 later.
"Every airplane has a story to tell," said Greg Herrick, president of the Aviation Foundation of America who has spent the past two years delving into the history of the air tours. "If you do the research, you can uncover some of these stories. The planes are like time machines [to the past]."
In keeping with the nostalgia of the tour, Herrick has assigned each pilot a "kindred spirit," a personality from one of the original seven air tours whose memory they take with them on tour.
King will be representing Vance Breese, a hot-shot aviator who thrilled crowds during a 1926 tour stop in Chicago. Breese later became a successful test pilot who helped cure the P-38 Lightning of its wild death dives.
But in a nod to the past, King will also use a map and compass on the tour.
"Perspective is the whole key to the tour," said King, his workshop radio tuned to swing-era music. "In the 1920s, the tour was 'Look how far we've come.' Less than 50 years [before the tour] everything had been horse and buggy. And that's the message of the tour now: 'Look how far we've come.'"
Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.