Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Harbor Springs, Michigan: Local resident restores plane for flight after 50-plus years grounded.

A Return to the Skies


Despite an ironic fear of heights, Andy Bowman Sr. seeks the thrill and freedom of flying-- and piloting-- with an unbreakable regard for airplanes that continues to stand the test of time.

His interest in “mechanical birds” was sparked as a teenager, taking flying lessons at just 16, but it wasn’t until almost 30 years later that he earned his wings.

Before he earned the title “pilot”, Bowman decided to purchase his own plane. As a passenger on a flight to Oshkosh, Wisconsin to look for an aircraft, he learned a lesson about respect for the weather. First came the fog and then came the tree. Though all aboard survived the crash with just minor injuries, the plane did not. Bowman did not let the incident steer him away from his passion for flying.

“My wife was pretty hesitant about me flying again,” he joked. However, his flying instructor used it as a teaching moment and encouraged him to get right back into the cock-pit.

After selling the Outfitter in 2001, an outdoor store in Harbor Springs, Bowman became a collector of sorts. To date, he has owned six private aircraft and has helped friends to build numerous planes, some kit built, and others restorations. He credits his rebuilding and mechanical knowledge to several friends who have shared their experience and know-how with him.

“All planes need to be inspected each year. I have always participated and tried to learned as much as I could from mechanics and people that have built planes,” Bowman said.

His most recent project was an opportunity to complete a restoration of a very early aircraft which in turn was a chance to salvage heirlooms for a Harbor Springs family.

Pellston Regional Airport is the current home of A Buhl Air Sedan, which was built in 1928 by the Buhl Aircraft Company in Marysville, Michigan near Port Huron. (To mark the timeline, the Wright Brothers had their first successful flight with a powered airplane in 1903.)

In the late 1920s the Buhl family had been on the Detroit manufacturing scene for nearly one hundred years (perhaps better known for the Buhl Stamping Company and the 26 story Buhl Building in downtown Detroit).

Returning the airplane back to the Buhl family took years, and restoring the plane to airworthy was a story in itself, according to Bowman.

Prior to this daunting task, Bowman had helped the Buhl family to take apart a smaller aircraft for transport and put it back together again for static display. The Buhl “Bull Pup,” was constructed in 1931. This plane is small and light, built during the depression to be more fuel efficient and less expensive.

The Buhls came to Bowman with hopes of also restoring the Buhl Air Sedan.

The plane made the journey from California to Ohio where Bowman took inventory on the plane; it eventually made the trip to Indian River, Michigan by truck. Once it arrived at the Indian River Airport, Bowman began the two year restoration project. Several people contributed time and effort along the way, Bowman explained. It was later moved to a hanger in Pellston, where the wings were installed for the first time since 1953.T Bowman painted the plane in a scheme similar to the only surviving Buhl Air Sedan located today in a Minnesota museum.

While many of the original parts were Michigan made, several local companies also contributed to the restoration. Traverse Bay Canvas, worked on the three rows of seating -- a tight squeeze for four. The Trophy Shop in Petoskey, and Indian River Towing, all pitched in to help complete the project.

While the original intent was not to make the plane airworthy, Bowman proposed that the Air Sedan could be restored for flight. He found Pilots Jim Mynning and Paul Fullerton who were experienced in flying similar planes and willing to test fly the historic aircraft.

Once the engine and propeller were added, it was time to test it’s wings. Buhl family members gathered in Pellston to watch the plane take flight. Fullerton was the Pilot that sunny day.

After all that time -- 58 years-- the plane flew again, and it flew well, Bowman noted.

Bowman’s knowledge of airplanes built by Buhl Aircraft provides stories that are both intriguing and mysterious. Given his natural inclination as a story-teller, Bowman’s tales feel like a living history experience.

His favorite airplane story; however, might be his own.

In 2007, Bowman and his wife Mary D. visited their daughter and family in Juneau, Alaska. “Grandy” Bowman” would take his grandson, Dylan, to the end of the runway to wave at the airplanes. He would excitedly ask for more planes.

Bowman said, “One day I thought, ‘what if the airplane he was waving to was mine?’”

After working nine months to put together a plane made from a kit, and a year of test flying, Bowman set off for Alaska in early May of 2008. His wife Mary D. flew out commercially and arranged to surprise their Daughter’s family at the airport. Following the Alaskan Highway, a combination of weather, mountains, limited visibility and re-fueling obstacles extended the flight to six days. Bowman eventually landed on the Juneau runway, greeted by his grandson, waving and smiling ear to ear.

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