Many of those “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” television shows begin by the discovery of some old, forgotten bones… after which the beautiful young CSI members, clad in tight jeans and T-shirts (don’t they have a dress code at work?) swarm the scene. They whisk away the remains to their lab and use every high-tech gadget the script writers can imagine to tell a story.
I’ve been trying to do the same, except without Ted Danson and his hair to help me.
Much like a TV show, this case began with the rumor of some remains stashed in a hangar for decades.
Following a tip
Bob Hunt, a New Jersey aircraft restorer, was tipped off to an airplane project for sale at Orange County Airport (KMGJ), a rural airport in Montgomery, N.Y. about 75 miles from New York City.
Hunt drove up for a preliminary investigation and found evidence of a very complete 1952 Piper Super Cub Special.
“The wings needed work, but it looked like everything was there. It’s unusual to find such a complete project aircraft like this—with all the logbooks, too,” he said.
This particular project held special meaning for Hunt. “My first flight was in a Special. My dad was in the Civil Air Patrol at Armonk, N.Y., and it was his favorite plane to fly. He took me and my sister up, sometime in the late 1950s.”
Unlike many CSI episodes, the hangar owner readily admitted to dismembering the aircraft 14 years ago.
Fortunately, he’d taken great care to pack every widget and wing nut in boxes. The skinless wings were carefully hung up on the hangar walls and the engine was removed whole and mounted on a stand.
The owner’s intention was to rebuild it, but other aircraft, business and family responsibilities took precedence. Finally, the day came when he decided the project must go to someone who would get ‘er flying again.
A perfect match
Hunt knew that I was looking for an aircraft like a Piper Cub but with a few more knots of speed and an electric system. It seemed the perfect match.
After a transfer of cash, on Nov. 11, 2013—Armistice Day, 95 years after the end of the Great War—Bob Hunt and I arrived to remove the remains.
We strapped the wings, ailerons and empennage to Bob’s trailer and loaded his truck with dusty boxes of airplane guts.
We piled on fuel tubing and header tanks, exhaust pipes, cowlings, control sticks and the wooden floorboards complete with the original data plate. The instrument panel was so thick with dust I couldn’t see which instruments were installed.
The engine and fuselage were left to be collected later.
Back in his shop, Hunt started on the wings, replacing drag wires, leading edges, fixing a rib or two, and taking great care in the preparation for covering.
“I had to replace a few rusty steel parts, but most of the aluminum was in good shape,” he told me. “I made sure all the ribs are perfectly straight and that the ailerons fit the wings perfectly.
“It’ll fly much better if everything is perfectly aligned.”
Bob’s done this a time or two before. “My first restoration project was a Piper J-4 Cub Coupe that I bought when I had just three hours in my logbook back in 1982,” he explained.
“I flew that with my dad for a while, and then I bought a Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser in 1986.
“After restoration it won ‘best PA-12’ at Sentimental Journey, the annual gathering of Piper Aircraft held at Lock Haven, in 1988,” Hunt recalled. “I’ve probably restored about 24 planes over the years.”
Bob’s mission is to give my aircraft new life; I wanted to learn its past life.
My forensic investigation started with a stack of mildewed papers and six aircraft and engine logbooks. The logbooks were filled with entries from many hands over the decades, a mishmash of scribbled signatures, misspellings, poor penmanship and make-it-up-as-you-go abbreviations.
I spent hours deciphering the tiny cramped handwriting using a magnifying glass. (Just call me “Sherlock.”) It was quickly apparent that among the 100-hour inspections and oil change entries there was little pertinent information as to the ownership and location of the plane.
I did discover that these Piper PA-18-105 Super Cub Specials were built for the military and are fairly rare. Only 242 were built, and mine—N105T—was the fifth one off the line, rolling out on Nov. 12, 1952.
In Roger Peperell’s book, “Piper Aircraft: The development and history of Piper designs,” Piper’s official historian describes what made these planes special:
1952 saw the start of a special version for the Civil Air Patrol, the PA-18-105 Special. This was used for training purposes by the CAP, U.S. Army and Air Force flying clubs as well as for some actual military pilot training, and was referred to as the PA-18T.
It had the Lycoming O-235-C1 of 108 hp and provision for seat parachutes, no flaps but it had horn balanced elevators.
The first was s/n 18-2214, registration N100T, completed on Sept. 25, 1952. The Approved Type Certificate was granted on Nov. 24, 1952.
Production was built in a continuous block ending with s/n 18-2456, registration N342T, completed on March, 12, 1953.
Because the N-number of all these Specials end with a “T,” they are often known as Tango Cubs.
The military demanded a few modifications to the Super Cub, such as toe brakes instead of the normal heel brakes; a metal interior; a “special” instrument panel and an extra-large tail, which became standard for Super Cubs.
A factory document revealed that the plane was painted Army-Navy Yellow, a more orange- yellow than the classic Cub yellow. It didn’t mention the color of the interior, but we found old paint on hidden parts that indicates it was originally hickory brown.
I haven’t yet learned which instruments were installed in the “special” instrument panel.
Put into service
So, did this “special” aircraft ever make it into military service? It’s seems that it did, sort of.
The first page of the first logbook shows that the plane was sold by Piper to Rockaway Flyers Inc., a company based in Cedarhurst, N.Y. on Long Island, not too far from today’s JFK airport. But that’s all I know about Rockaway Flyers.
After that first entry describing the sale to Rockaway Flyers, the next logbook entry is a June 1953 inspection that shows the plane accumulated 364 hours in its first six months. Where the plane was based is still unknown.
Monthly entries from June 1953 to January 1955 made by a mechanic named Paul F. Slack (A&E #1194866) list the inspections, but give no clue to the airplane’s location until 1955.
Then an entry describes the plane being sold—but not by Rockaway Flyers. A company called California Eastern Airways (CEA) at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi sold it.
How did it end up in the Deep South?
It seems that N105T, built for the military, went to a civilian company to train military pilots.
In June 1941, six months before the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. War Department approved the construction of an army air field at Columbus, Miss. after its citizens lobbied to bring defense industries to the area. Pilots trained there throughout World War II until the base was deactivated in 1946.
When the Korean War erupted in 1950, the Air Training Command reactivated the base as a contract flying school. The company hired to provide pilot training was California Eastern Airways—the owner of N105T.
By January 1955 the aircraft had flown 1,605 hours, about 65 hours a month. From these entries I assume Paul Slack was associated with CEA, as he made the last logbook entry before the plane was sold.
From CEA to CAP
Although I could find no mention of Rockaway Flyers during my research, California Eastern Airways is still in business.
CEA was founded by a few World War II pilots who wanted to get into the air cargo business. They quickly expanded their air cargo business into various government aviation and management roles. CEA airlifted supplies during the Korean War and managed the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
In 1952, the company was renamed California Eastern Aviation, Inc. and through decades of mergers with other firms, it became DynCorp International in 1987.
Today, the company is a military contractor providing air operations support, intelligence training and support, security and the operation and maintenance of land vehicles.
It was California Eastern Airways that sold N105T to Civil Air Patrol Nassau Squadron 2 in New York on Jan. 20, 1955.
So not only is N105T the same type of airplane Bob Hunt’s father flew, it flew at a Civil Air Patrol squadron in the New York City area at the same time his father was a CAP member. It would be an amazing coincidence, because we think N105T and Bob’s father were at different squadrons, but there’s a slim possibility they flew together.
It seems that my little aircraft traveled quite a bit during its first years of life: from Lock Haven, Penn. to Rockaway, N.Y., to Columbus, Miss. and back to New York in 26 months, spending 1,605 hours in the air.
Life in the CAP
According to the logbook, 1st. Lt. L.M. Light flew the plane from Columbus AFB to Rockaway Airport over two days, Jan. 27-29, 1955.
He logged 10 hours and 25 minutes to fly via Atlanta, Greensboro, N.C., Richmond, Va., and finally to Rockaway Airport, a field located just south of today’s Kennedy International Airport (KJFK). Rockaway Airport was built in 1941 and only lasted until about 1957.
I’ve tried to find information about CAP Squadron 2, but with no success. Current New York CAP officers don’t seem to know anything about this particular squadron, and requests for information from the Civil Air Patrol National Headquarters are as-yet unanswered.
From January 1955 to May 1958 the logbook lists the hours flown, but includes little other information—not even the name of the person making the entries.
The only details concern maintenance, with the annual inspections listed and the repairs made. In 1956 the aircraft was recovered in “Irish Linnen” [sic] and painted silver by Kutztown Aviation Service in Pennsylvania and returned to the squadron.
Many CAP aircraft of that era were painted silver with a large round CAP insignia on the fuselage.
The plane was grounded from July 1957 to May 1958 due to an engine overhaul.
It was re-covered again in 1961, and the only logbook entries through 1964 are for annual inspections.
From 1955 to 1964, the ownership and use of this aircraft are really unknown. I assume that for many of those years it was still with the CAP, but at some point it must have moved from Rockaway, as that airport closed around 1957.
By 1964 the 12-year-old aircraft, which had introduced a new generation of military pilots to flying during the Korean War, was sold by the Civil Air Patrol to private owners.
Its history from there is erratic, not very interesting, and a bit sad. The plane passed through numerous owners in the New York and New Jersey region.
Some owners flew it as little as 10 hours a year, while others flew 50 to 60 hours a year. It was recovered a few more times and painted white with a red stripe. A heavy 1960s IFR panel was added.
The plane was taken out of service in 1993 and must have sat at Orange County Airport until 1999 when the last owner bought it and dismembered it.
Its wings, fuselage, engine and boxes of parts gathered dust in the hangar there for the next 14 years.
The Special takes flight again
After 10 months of exacting work, Bob Hunt rolled out his latest aircraft restoration for its first flight in the 21st century on Sept. 7, 2014.
He’d returned the little military trainer to its original factory condition. Once again it’s painted Army-Navy Yellow with a rich hickory brown interior.
The designation “TA-105” (for “training aircraft”) is painted on the fuselage and the cowling sports a large round insignia of the U.S. Air Force Training Command. While training military pilots in Mississippi, it would have had the name “Columbus” over the insignia—and maybe I’ll add that one day.
But for now, another piece of aviation history has been saved from the scrapyard, and perhaps more pilots will come to know the story of these simple, sturdy Specials that played a small role during the Korean War.