Saturday, February 21, 2015

Sheboygan Civil Air Patrol members built own plane

Sheboygan County has an interesting and deep history of aviation. One part of that history involves the Civil Air Patrol. The auxiliary arm of the Air Force, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) is known for its aid in search and rescue missions, aerospace education and cadet programs.

CAP was founded on Dec. 1, 1941, one week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At the height of WWII, CAP had over 150,000 members, flying more than 500,000 hours of reconnaissance. They were credited with sinking two German submarines, spotting many more and rescuing sailors from sunken merchant ships. The Civil Air Patrol also supplied aviation cadets to the Army Air Corp.

A Feb. 13, 1960, issue of the Sheboygan Press brings to light another project of Civil Air Patrol members. The headline read, "Local Pilots Still Feel Pioneer Spirit of Air." It seems a group of flying enthusiasts set out to build and fly their own aircraft.

Most pilots have at one time or another constructed model airplanes, but this group of four bought a life-size Stilts Playboy sports plane, but in pieces. The cost for such an aircraft in 1960, fully built, was about $1,280.

Involved in this project were Earl Skelton, a pattern maker by trade, Vern Lieding, a general contractor, John Mickelson, the operator of a service station and used car lot, and Robert Kovacic, a building expeditor. All licensed pilots, the four were active members of the senior squadron of the Civil Air Patrol.

The workshop for the project was located at 1510 Calumet Drive, somewhere around Rodewald Automotive, today. Pat Krueger, who operated a car body repair shop on the first floor, offered the use of the second floor, rent free, after learning of the project.

The popular Stilts Playboy, named after Ray Stilts in 1952, was 17 feet long, had a wing span of 23 feet and weighed between 700 and 800 pounds. The two-seat aircraft was powered with a 115-125 horsepower engine capable of taking it to a height of about 18,000 feet. With a cruising speed of up to 140 miles per hour, it was also fully acrobatic and capable of inverted flight.

Skelton, dubbed as the 'brains of this outfit' by the other three men originated the project about 1955. However, he kept putting off actual start of construction because of the need for workshop space until in 1959, the subject of building a sports plane came up during a CAP function. Then and there, it was agreed to "quit talking and start building."

Requiring more than 3,000 man hours to construct the plane, completion was expected by early fall of 1960. The four anticipated that the project would cost about $2,000, far less than buying one.

Most of the material used in this plane's construction was salvaged from scrapped airplanes, including an old pilot trainer purchased from Harry Chaplin of Plymouth and an old Cessna. A good share of the money the men spent on the plane went toward the purchase of the engine, propeller and fabric. Needed plywood was supplied by Larson Plywood. Owner Ed Larson, also a pilot, took a keen interest in the project.

Before the fuselage could be painted or covered with fabric, the workmanship had to be examined and approved by a Civil Aviation Administration inspector. After inspection the body of the plane was to be removed to either the Kohler Airport or the new Sheboygan County Airport that was under construction at the time. There the wing was added.

After another inspection Skelton could begin preliminary testing. Then the plane had to be test-flown for 50 hours before the CAA granted an airworthiness certificate.

Though we don't know all the history of the plane since, we do know that 65 years later, the group's project can be seen at the Sheboygan County Aviation Heritage Center.

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