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Long-delayed flight to land

Sun Staff

The whirling screech of a power drill emanating from inside the chippedwhite barn can mean only one thing: Andrew King is resurrecting the past.

Surrounded by the husks of vintage planes that stand as fascinating asdinosaur skeletons, the restorer of antique aircraft is working to save thecorroded brake unit of a 1929 Fairchild KR-34C biplane he is rebuilding for aWyoming collector. That's why aviation buffs call King. It seems he cansalvage just about anything.

But his biggest project to date involves resurrecting an event, not aplane. In this case, the 1932 National Air Tour from the "Golden Age ofAviation" - a 20-year period between the two world wars when biplanes landedin hayfields, the first airlines were born and the romance of flight had notyet succumbed to the cattle-car feel of modern air travel.

Flying meticulously restored or replicated Tri-Motors, Sikorsky flyingboats and other models from the 1920s and 1930s, King and dozens of pilotsfrom more than 20 states and Canada are to land their aerial flotilla inMaryland beginning at noon today at the Frederick Municipal Airport as part ofNational 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 Wednesdayafter a 4,000-mile journey through 25 cities.

Sponsored by automobile manufacturer Henry Ford to boost public confidencein the fledging beginnings of commercial aviation, the original National AirTour was held annually from 1925 to 1931. The cross-country flights counteredthe popular perception of airplanes as risky contraptions flown by daringmilitary pilots and barnstormers, demonstrating them as safe and reliablealternatives to the railroad.

The tour descended on Baltimore twice, once in 1927 and again in 1929, andhad been scheduled to visit Frederick in 1932, but the onset of the GreatDepression depleted tour funding.

More than 70 years later, King and the roving band of pilots will close thefinal chapter of the landmark tour by navigating what would have been its 1932route, 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 AviationFoundation of America to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Wrightbrothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Organizers said the event aims torekindle excite- ment in the aviation industry - which has been hampered byslumping profits and post-9/11 flight restrictions - by generating publicfascination 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 oflament the lack of interest in it," King, 41, said during a recent visit tohis barn workshop in Culpeper, Va.

When it comes to flight history, most think of the Wright brothers beforetheir 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 derLinden, early aviation curator at the Smithsonian National Air and SpaceMuseum in Washington.

"Everything we know today about aviation was basically created [during theGolden Age]," van der Linden said. "When it started, aviation was aninteresting novelty. By the end of the period, it was a necessity."

In the span of two decades, van der Linden noted, wood-and-fabric biplanesevolved into all-metal aircraft with such advanced features as air-cooledradial engines, retractable landing gear and air brakes.

By the late 1920s, the age of the airplane was taking hold, but during thedire economic times of the Great Depression, travel by air was a luxuryenjoyed primarily by businessmen, movie stars and the wealthy. CharlesLindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 from New York to Paris had sparkedpublic excitement in airplanes, but many had not seen them up close, let aloneflown in one until the National Air Tour arrived in town with pilots offeringpleasure rides.

It was common for thousands of people to crush in on the local airfield orperch on rooftops to watch the parade of planes - a contrast in construction,colors and manufacturing features - roar from above by ones and twos. Morethan 10,000 Baltimoreans, dressed in their best clothes, assembled in Dundalkat Logan Field (now Logan Shopping Center) to greet the arrival of 43 planesin 1929.

In addition to the wondrous machines, spectators were exposed to ahodgepodge of goggle-clad pilots in leather flying helmets, some of themwomen, and memorable passengers such as Jimmy Whirlwind - a diminutive monkeynamed after the Whirlwind aircraft motor - who arrived at Logan Field aboard aWaco biplane July 1, 1927.

"At first, Jimmy was terrified of the noise and was far from appreciatingthe pleasures of the trip," The Sun reported the day after. "Yesterday,however, he recovered his equanimity, and on the run to Baltimore spent muchof his time with one paw shading his eyes, looking out of the window, whileimmediately after his plane landed he enjoyed a banana, seated on the groundunder the cockpit."

King won't have a monkey with him when he lands on the grass runway inFrederick, but he will be flying the oldest plane in this year's tour, a 1926Ryan M-1, which was used by Pacific Air Transport (now United Airlines) tocarry mail and passengers between Los Angeles and Seattle.

King, who learned to fly before getting a driver's license, had yearned fora Ryan since high school and set out in 1994 to build one. A friend told himthat an airline pilot in Lovettsville, Va., Bob Buck, owned an original modeland recommended King pay him a visit.

He was doubtful at first because only 28 of the aircraft were built, butwas pleasantly surprised to find the plane's rusty fuselage hanging in Buck'sshed. Buck gave King the aging remains and by 1995, using the fuselage and anoriginal strut, King began the tedious task of rebuilding the plane. Hecompleted the project in 2001 - 3,500 work hours and $60,000 later.

"Every airplane has a story to tell," said Greg Herrick, president of theAviation Foundation of America who has spent the past two years delving intothe history of the air tours. "If you do the research, you can uncover some ofthese stories. The planes are like time machines [to the past]."

In keeping with the nostalgia of the tour, Herrick has assigned each pilota "kindred spirit," a personality from one of the original seven air tourswhose memory they take with them on tour.

King will be representing Vance Breese, a hot-shot aviator who thrilledcrowds during a 1926 tour stop in Chicago. Breese later became a successfultest 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 radiotuned to swing-era music. "In the 1920s, the tour was 'Look how far we'vecome.' Less than 50 years [before the tour] everything had been horse andbuggy. And that's the message of the tour now: 'Look how far we've come.'"

Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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