Dh-4 to Oshkosh
By Don Parsons
All Photo's and Content Copyright © 2007 by Don Parsons. All Rights reserved.
The EAA calls it Airventure. We call this years an Adventure of a Lifetime. Flying a De Havilland Dh-4 to Oshkosh from St Louis involved many thrilling moments, a few scary ones and an experience we will never forget. I had told my son, Skyler, the month before that this was an adventure and we may not even make it to Oshkosh. We would be flying alongside the Dh-4 and with its 90-year old technology, it might prove a little temperamental. He was okay with that. Little did we know then that this trip was going to take us four days to get to Oshkosh, involve returning to St Louis and make a few more flights than planned.
Like they say, flying is several hours of boredom filled with moments of terror!
We had finished topping the engine of the chase plane, my Fairchild 24, the day before. Glenn Peck still had two weeks worth of work to do in a day on the Dh-4. Or at least as much as he could do. The plan was to leave early that Saturday morning or just leave at all. We would go our usual route; Canton, IL and then on to Poplar Grove, IL. We’d spend the night at our friends, Ken and Lorraine Morris’s house, and then head to Oshkosh early Sunday morning. At least, that was the plan.
Skyler cleans parts of the cowling during the installation of new cylinders.
I had Skyler, my 9 ½ year-old son and trusted copilot, stay at home Saturday morning to get some rest. He had been helping me with the Fairchild the past couple of days which had been long ones for us all. I took my airplane out Saturday morning and flew it around the patch for awhile to ensure everything was working correctly and to start to seat the engine rings. Everything was fine with the Fairchild, her engine ran smoothly and stronger than it had in a long time.
We pulled the Dh-4 out into the sunlight about 10 AM and tried to light her off. We cranked and cranked and cranked. We thought she was flooded, so we waited awhile and then tried to start her again. Her engine showed no signs, not even a hint of wanting to start. Back into the hangar she went. She was getting fuel, we could smell it in the exhaust pipes. Glenn has just rebuilt the engines twin-distributors, making two good ones out of the six old ones he had, and installed them on the airplane. We suspected them, but upon checking the condensers and points out, could find nothing wrong.
He had just timed the engine, so initially we didn’t think that to be a problem. But there had been many people around him, wishing him well on his upcoming trip and that ended up being the problem. He usually works by himself and with those well-wishing people around him, it was enough of a distraction to cause him to time the engine incorrectly. He set about retiming the engine over while I went home to bring Sky out and run some last minute errands. Sky came out along with most of our stuff for the trip, so while Glenn worked, we packed the Fairchild. Glenn didn’t finish until early that evening, so we went home with the plan of leaving Sunday morning early along with Terry Chastain in a freshly restored Waco QCF-2 belonging to John Cournoyer. We went to the store to get some deli meat and bread and breakfast bars, then home to put them in the refrigerator.
Out to the airport at 7:30 this Sunday morning, Glenn was buttoning up the cowling and packing his supplies in the mail hold/ front cockpit of the Dh-4. Sky and I got the Fairchild out, ran her engine to warm up the oil and parked her up by the airport office. Terry was filling up the Waco’s fuel tanks and asked us to carry his and Bill Austin’s sleeping bags and tents as there was no room in the Waco and we would arrive in Oshkosh before another friend driving up who had volunteered to take them.
Glenn was ready to go, so we all started up and taxied out to Runway 34 to go. Terry had to warm his engine for a couple minutes, so Glenn took off from the intersection and flew the pattern to check the Dh-4 out and to make a low pass for his sweetie, his wife Barb.
As Glenn flew overhead, I taxied onto the runway and began my takeoff roll for what was to become my longest time ever to get to Oshkosh.
Terry followed right after me and soon we were all in a loose formation headed towards our first stop, Canton, IL. We would take a short break there, put some gas into the planes and make sure everything was working fine and just stretch our legs.
Soon Sky and I were to be treated to a breathtaking sight not seen since the mid-30’s;
a Waco in formation with a Dh-4.
We flew alongside for several minutes, Sky holding straight and level while I managed a few snaps.
I marveled at the sight and could only gaze in admiration at the two biplanes.
We then pulled ahead and landed in Canton after an hour and twelve minute flight and pulled up the gas pump. Terry and Glenn landed as we started to put fuel in our gas tank.
Waco QCF-2 and the Dh-4 fly formation.
Glenn pulled up and filled up after us. He and I went in, paid our bills and grabbed a couple bottles of water. I went out to move my plane so that Terry could get gas. About twenty people were gathered around to look at the planes. Glenn and I moved the Dh-4 over to the water faucet so he could fill the radiator. He went to wash his hands as Terry paid his bill and we climbed in our planes.
Terry started up. I started up. When I looked over to Glenn, he was climbing out of his plane and walking over towards us. I thought he just wanted to brief the flight up to Poplar Grove, our next fuel stop. I was wrong. The starter had gone out in the Dh-4. Again. Glenn had had problems with the starter from the eighth start onward. He had already removed the starter two or three times. He finally put in several set screws in the starter clutch and we thought he had it fixed. “It must have broken the screws,” was all I could think. We shut down, motioned for Terry to shut down and went over to him to discuss the problem. We decided he should go on. He and Bill would pay a visit to the local store for sleeping bags and a tent. I would stay with Glenn and hopefully we would be up to Oshkosh either later that day or the next. Terry reprogrammed his GPS and took off.
Glenn started taking off the side panels and top of the cowling. It was already getting warm out. Glenn climbed up to get to the side and took the starter off. Working under the wing to get some shade, he was able to take the starter motor off from the starter and get to the clutch. He found that the clutch was fine, the starter drive had sheared…
The starter drive is a piece about 3 inches in diameter with six tangs or dog ears in the center to pull the starter back when it senses the engine is turning faster than the starter. I thought we would have to fly back to St Louis to make the part, but Glenn thought he could make one there and save us some time.
Little Skyler went and sat under the wing of our plane, looking dejected. I asked him what was wrong, he said he was bored. I told him the starter was broken and we couldn’t go until Glenn had it fixed. I reminded him of what we’d talked about a month earlier and said this was just part of the adventure. His mood changed immediately and that was the only time he complained at all.
It was 11:30 and we were getting hungry, so we borrowed the courtesy car and drove into town to have lunch at a Dairy Queen. Finishing lunch, we drove to the Farm Supply store and got some more tools, nuts and bolts. We drove back to the airport and Glenn started working on building a new part. Ted Lambasio, the FBO owner and operator gave us free reign of his shop and tools, told us to make ourselves at home.
Glenn took a piece of sheet 4130 steel and cut out a piece about 4” square with a hacksaw. Then he cut off the corners with a grinder, making it roughly round. He took a drill press, ruining about 6 bits on the hardened steel, drilled some guide holes while he cut out the tangs with a small dremel tool. He then filed it down to fit. We went back to the store to buy a small torch to heat treat the piece. By now it was 6:00 in the evening and we figured we had to be airborne by 7:00 to make Poplar Grove before dark. We were still putting on the cowling at 7:15, so we borrowed the courtesy car for the night and went to the local Super 8. Sky and I got a pizza and Glenn went out to a grocery store and got a sandwich.
Monday morning, we thought the airplane was ready to go. We pushed it back to the water faucet to fill the radiator to the top when Glenn noticed that the tailskid was broken. He had landed in the grass and upon turning onto the paved runway had caught a lip banging the tailskid and breaking it. There was only one thing to do-go back to St Louis and get one of the spare tailskids, more tools and modify the starter some more.
While Glenn took off the starter, Sky and I emptied our camping gear out of the Fairchild and into a storage room at the FBO. We wrapped the starter in plastic and put in on the floor and took off for St Louis. It took us an hour to get home. I took Sky home to see his mom and to do a triple check to make sure we had everything we wanted to take with us.
Leaving for the airport at 2:00, Glenn was almost ready to go. We had gassed the airplane on arrival, so all we had to do was check to oil and make sure no one had run into the airplane. I added 2 quarts of oil, put the starter and new tailskid (really a 90-year old part modified for pavement) into the airplane and we went back to Canton. We went up to 7,500’ to find some smooth, cool air to keep Sky from getting sick.
We landed and in a couple hours, Glenn had the new tailskid on and the starter back on and we were ready to go. It was now 6:00, the weather was perfect and we were headed to Poplar Grove. The Dh-4 started right up, everything checked normally as we took off towards the south. Turning to the northeast, we were headed to Poplar Grove on this beautiful evening.
We were enjoying the flight in the evening air. The engine purred along like a kitten. The yellow-orange light of days end was just starting to filter down upon the Dh-4 bathing it in its warmth. Sky and I were talking about how beautiful the Dh-4 was in the early-evening light when Glenn clicked on and said, “My alternators just crapped out-I’ve got a 17 amp discharge.”
Crap! What now! The first words out of my mouth were “Climb”. The Dh-4 engine runs off of twin distributors. The receive their
power from the battery.
No battery=no spark to the spark plugs=the fan up front stops turning. This could prove to be a serious problem. I started looking for airports close by. Mendota had a grass strip, called Grandpa’s, at my 3 o’clock and about 5 miles.
It was 4,000’ long, running north to south. Glenn was monitoring his discharge rate and trying to figure if he had enough juice to make it to
Poplar Grove. I transmitted the Mendota location. He said he wanted to
try and make the next airport. All I could think of was here goes our episode of
“I Learned about Flying from That.”
We flew northeast bound for another two minutes and then he said he wanted to return to that airport. I saw him making a right turn, so I stood the Fairchild up on her left wing, saying I would make a low pass and check it out before he came in. Throttle full, nose down, Sky and I roared straight in from the north at Mendota. There was a windsock that looked fairly new, a house on the north end of the strip and the grass runway had just been mown down the center. As I passed the south end of the strip, I could make out t-hangars with a few airplanes and a Lake Amphibian parked outside. I pulled up and to the right, transmitting that the field appeared to be okay to land on.
Glenn landed on the hilly first third of the runway, and landed and landed. He said he gets to log about 10 landings for this one and he kept touching down on the uphill side of the slope and the little hills kept throwing him back in the air.
I was luckier. I touched down on a downslope and was able to keep the mains pinned to the ground. We both taxied off onto a grass taxiway, pulling up by the t-hangers and parked side-by-side. Breathing a sigh of relief, I shut down the engine, got out of the plane and walked over to Glenn. Right then, a small pickup pulled-up and out came one of the owners of the field, Robert Krenz.
“Need any help,” he asked.
“Yea, fix it!” laughed Glenn. We all introduced ourselves. Said we were on our way to Oshkosh, but the airplane was not cooperating. Robert offered us anything we needed; water for the radiator, a battery charger, his father’s van for the evening so we could get another hotel room. As Glenn tied the Dh-4 down, Sky and I rode into town with Robert to retrieve his dad’s van. His dad had just had a knee replaced, was 82 years old and wouldn’t be using the van for awhile. I followed Robert back out to the airport, grabbed our bags and headed towards the Super 8 on the east side of town.
Checking in, we went to our rooms and dropped our bags. Back downstairs, we hopped back in the van and went to Ziggy’s, a small diner that was open 24 hours. Glenn had a burger, I had a tenderloin and fries. Sky had spaghetti. We were all exhausted, we hardly talked through dinner. Back to the hotel and a good nights rest.
Tuesday morning started with Glenn asking for the van keys. He went out to put the battery on a charger while Sky and I got ready to go. Picking us up, we went back to Ziggy’s and had a good, full breakfast. I knew it might have to hold us for awhile, so I encouraged Sky to eat up. He ordered French Toast and ate every bit of it.
Back out to the airport, the battery is fully charged. Glenn puts it in the airplane and we begin the job of adding water to the radiator. The radiator leaks. No big deal. It has a 13 gallon capacity, more than enough to handle our hour and a half legs. It took a little over 7 jugs of water to fill the radiator. Since Glenn had only three jugs, that meant 3 trips to the hose for Skyler. He was really seeing this as an adventure now and having fun with it.
We both got in our airplanes. I primed the Fairchild and lifted the Master Switch cover, just waiting for him to start to throw my own starter switch. He yelled “Clear” and engaged the starter. The Dh-4 made a whiny noise but the propeller didn’t move…@#$*!
The piece that Glenn had spent 7
hours making the day before in
Canton had sheared. I guess our using a cheap torch to heat treat it didn’t work. Or maybe the starter just acted like a shear and took the tangs off. In any case, it didn’t matter. Glenn was muttering something about borrowing a match or going back home to get a trailer.
At that moment, Steve Thomas from Poplar Grove called and asked
how he could help. I explained the situation to him. Steve said he had a trailer, they could come and get the airplane. We could use their machine
shop, come up there and machine a part. Whatever we needed or
wanted to do. I told Glenn this and he instantly made the decision to
go to Poplar Grove. Sky and I emptied the Fairchild for the second time while Glenn took the starter off.
In 45 minutes, we were headed north to Poplar Grove and friends.
Landing west on the grass, Tina Thomas said to pull right up front. They had it set up already to take us to their friend, Scott Taylor’s machine shop. Scott, it turns out, is a professional, off-road racer. He builds his own cars and has a CNC lathe and milling machine in his shop. Steve must be a good friend, because he dropped everything to help us. Sending Sky out to ride in the golf cart with his 8 year old daughter Hannah, he took out his calipers and made a drawing of the piece. All he had was 4140 steel, harder than 4130. Chucking up a piece in his lathe, he punched the sizes into the computer, closed the door and listened as the lathe started doing its work.
“What’s it like to fly?” Turns out he’s built a Lancair and working on his second project.
Steve and I hopped in his van and went to get subs for us all. Glenn and Scott continued working on the part and Skyler kept riding the golf cart with his new friend. An hour later, the part was finished. We could fix the starter and come up to Poplar Grove. The alternator would have to wait. We thought it either fried the regulator or that the regulator had shut it down because it was too hot, so were not expecting any big deal. I paid for my gas, we hopped in the Fairchild and flew the half-hour back to Mendota.
I made another nice landing, with Glenn muttering under his breath throughout the rollout and pulled up beside the Dh-4. Glenn hopped out and started working, again in the sun. Sky and I loaded up the Fairchild for the third time, but at least we were moving in the right direction.
An hour later, Glenn hopped into the airplane and it started right up. Now we’re finally on our way. We fly up to Poplar Grove, the Dh-4 a mile off our right wing. The engine’s running fine, the weather is fantastic and we’re glad to be heading north again.
We land west again and taxi up to the fuel pumps. Getting out of our plane, we see Glenn landing the same way and taxing over. Steve flags him down and takes him right to one of his hangars. They pushed the Dh-4 into the hangar and the water pump promptly lets loose, sending a stream of water onto the floor. Glenn puts a bucket underneath it and opened the petcock. He said it was coming out so fast, he couldn’t tell which stream was which. Great, that’s another problem to deal with here. Also, he couldn’t hear anything from straight ahead of or behind him. All the cable bracing was acting as interference for the blade antenna in the tail, so he would need a new, different antenna. He solved that problem pretty quickly by running into a guy whose friends ran a radio shop over at Rockford and could come set him up the next morning.
Tina brings me a couple cold beers which I drink thankfully over the next hour. It’s been a long week already. About 10 people have come out of their houses at the airpark to see the Dh-4. Steve tells us that Scott is on his way to see it, so we’ll definitely wait around to let him see the airplane.
We finally get all closed up at 8:30 and head to the hotel. Glenn decides we should eat first, so we stop at a Culver’s across from the hotel for sandwiches and milk shakes. Sky is a happy camper sucking down that milkshake!
We talk to Glenn and come up with a new plan. Sky and I will head to Oshkosh the next morning so we can at least be there one day while he’s fixing the Dh-4. We’ll stay in touch by phone and when he decides what he wants to do, he’ll give me a call and let me know. Right now, our options are : 1. If he can fix the airplane, we’ll fly down to Poplar Grove and escort him back up to Oshkosh, 2. Fly him home to St Louis to get either parts or his truck and trailer to trailer the Dh-4 back home or 3. Fly back to Poplar Grove to escort the Dh-4 in flying back to Creve Coeur. He talks with Al Stix, the owner of the aircraft and being as how he’s only 100 miles from Oshkosh, Al wants him to go there, if only for a day.
Wednesday dawns mostly clear and a little cool. We leave the hotel before the office is even open and head to the airport. Glenn parks the borrowed van in front of the hangar and we go in to inspect the airplane. Already, 2 or 3 of Steve’s mechanics are looking it over. Wishing Glenn better luck, Sky and I head up to the Fairchild to untie the ropes. I go in to pay my fuel bill and grab a cup of coffee, then head out. Sky’s already in the plane, so we fire up and taxi out to the hard surface to take off to the west. Going into position, Tina wishes us well as I push the throttle forward to start the airplane lumbering forward. We make a 45 degree departure right on course and climb up to 1,800 feet direct to Ripon, the beginning of the arrival into Oshkosh.
Scott Taylor, who the day before machined up the part, is there and going to Oshkosh with Hannah. He says hello and departs for the fly-in. Steve has allocated two of his mechanics to help Glenn in any way he might need. One of them knows someone who owns a machine shop so that is a big help.
Glenn repacks the water pump which significantly reduces the amount of water leaking out. The radio shop comes over and installs new coax line and a new antenna under the bottom cowling. A check of the piece Scott machined yesterday is made with the result being just normal wear, it’s holding up fine. The alternator surprises Glenn when he finds the voltage regulator okay, but part of the drive in the housing that he machined to have broken. He’ll need a machine shop to fix it now.
Fortune starts to smile just a little on us now. It was a clear, hot day up in Oshkosh and the heat got the better of little Hannah. Scott leaves early and at noon comes strolling into the shop. Glenn explains the drive problem to him and Scott takes off with the pieces to his shop. He returns the next morning with a new, freshly machined drive that has less tolerances than the original. Glenn puts it on and by early afternoon, is ready to go to Oshkosh.
He wanted to come in after the air show, but rain showers between he and Oshkosh wouldn’t let him and the forecast didn’t look good. After a couple of phone calls between he and I and Vintage Officials at EAA, it was decided the best thing to do was to keep the airplane in a hangar and try again the next morning, Friday. He stays with a Poplar Grove resident who luckily lets him wash his clothes in his washer.
Early Friday morning, Glenn calls me and says there is ground fog at Poplar Grove, visibility only a quarter mile. We think it will burn off and he’ll be able to leave soon. The fogs lifts, but there are still some showers in the area. I keep in close contact with Geoff Robison, the President of Vintage, who is our liaison to the FAA and parking at Oshkosh. Glenn calls me at 11:30 and says he’s going to try to make it. He launches at noon to go the 100 miles north.
About half way there, he sees the radiator water temp heading upward like a Saturn 5 rocket, so he makes a precautionary landing at the Dodge County Airport in Juneau, WI., his first landing on hard surface. He calls me after finding out that the petcock came partially open inflight emptying the water out. He pulls the airplane over to a garden hose, fills the radiator and launches again. We’re fighting time now. He’s left at 1:30 and needs to be on the ground no later than 2:15 or he’ll have to divert for the airshow. I nervously watch the sky with friends Ray Stettner and Mike Thern. All I see is mid-level rain clouds. I feel the color drain from my face.
At 2:13 my phone rings-crap! He’s back in Dodge County or Fond du Lac with another emergency was all I could think. But I’m wrong, it’s Geoff from the EAA. “He’s here. Made a beautiful landing right on the numbers.”
I can breathe now and slowly feel the color return to my face. I walk over to where they are going to park him as he rounds the corner with two wingwalkers and makes his way to his parking spot. They are going to put him just to the southeast of the Theater in the Woods, in a row facing south all by himself. He makes a wide left turn to the south and shuts down the engine. Skyler and I rush over to him to congratulate him on finally making Oshkosh. I’ve already called his wife Barbara to cancel his “flight plan.” She tells me to give him a hug, which I now do in front of God, Stearmans and everybody! Geoff and HG Frautschy from EAA are there with huge grins on their faces. Jerry and Linda Brown, Phil and Ruthie Coulson, at least two Vintage Judges and friends are there. Jerry gives me a high five. Glenn gets out of the plane and later says the experience was similar to Lindy at Le Bourget-so many people rushing up to greet him and the plane.
Glenn climbs out of the cockpit after successfully arriving in Oshkosh.
“Now I know how Lindy felt when he landed in Le Bourget.”
Phil Coulson quickly gives him a lift over to Aircraft Registration in hopes that we may still be able to have it judged. It’s good for Glenn to get away and escape the madness, for a few minutes anyway.
The Mustang crash cast a quieting pall Friday afternoon. Many people came by, all with the same questions and the same statements: “You’re leaking something,”, “Wow, what a beautiful airplane!” and “This absolutely makes the show for me!” It was nice sitting by the plane in the shade watching all the admirers.
We got up early Saturday morning to prep the plane and go over to watch over it. A couple of artists, some early-morning shutterbugs and Charlie Harris from the EAA/Biplane Fly-In at Bartlesville were already there. Charlie wanted to do an interview and video with Glenn on the story of this magnificent plane was what it was like to fly it up to Oshkosh. Glenn and I just laughed. I send Skyler off to go look at the model planes in the EAA Wearhouse and SkyShoppe. He came back with a couple and seemed to be happy just sitting in the shade, playing with his models. At 7:00 PM we went over to the Theater in the Woods, where Glenn was awarded the Judges Choice award for the airplane. We would have been happy with a bottle cap saying “Most Determined to Get to Oshkosh”, but this was an unexpected and greatly appreciated acknowledgement of Glenn’s work.
Sunday morning had us up at 5:45 to pack up our stuff and by 8:00 AM we were on our way to Poplar Grove. The airplane didn’t hiccup once and we were able to make it home before 2:30 that afternoon, a tired, shaggy and in need of a long, hot shower crew.
We have many people thank for making it possible for us to be able to attend EAA Airventure/Oshkosh this year. First and foremost, a tremendous amount of Thanks goes to the owner of the aircraft, Al Stix-one of the owners of the Historic Aircraft Restoration Museum. Al believed in Glenn and I, allowing us to take one of the Museum’s most valued treasures and we didn’t let him down. Glenn, putting in a tremendous amount of work, returned it in better shape than when we had left Creve Coeur.
HG Frautschy and Geoff Robison for the EAA for working with us to coordinate our arrival, helping arrange a grass landing strip (which Glenn eventually felt was too short for the Dh-4 to use safely) and most of all for providing reassurance and gratitude for bringing the airplane.
Skyler falls asleep after yet another successful Oshkosh.
To all the people who helped us along the way; Ted and Wendy Lambasio at Canton, Robert Krenz in Mendota, Steve and Tina Thomas, Scott and Hannah Taylor and the whole rest of the crew at Poplar Grove Airmotive, we extend our most humble “Thank You.”
To Ken and Lorraine Morris who kept tabs on us, never stopped worrying about us until we had landed safely and who offered us the use of their house and hangar-Thank You.
To the Vintage folks at Oshkosh who never lost faith that we would make it; Phil and Ruthie Coulson, Jerry and Linda Brown, Jeannie and Dick Hill-Thank you for your support and prayers.
Places We've Been
Oshkosh 2007-The Dh-4 Saga.
Antique Airplane Fly-In @ Blakesburg 2007
Thunder Over Michigan 2006
Creve Coeur Airport
Tailwheels in the Grass
The Historic Aircraft Restoration Museum's DeHavilland Dh-4!
A Little about Me...