Saturday, June 10, 2017

Historic plane from 1968 Warminster, Pennsylvania, crash to fly again

Great Lakes 2T-1A, N315Y: Fatal accident occurred May 14, 1968 in Warminster Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania


Jim Armstrong of Green Lane holds the registration number from Paul H. Maguire's Great Lakes Special aircraft. Armstrong knew Maguire and his plane well from the old Montgomeryville Airport. Armstrong's Gray African parrot, April, perches on his shoulder.



The flier made his plane dance in the sky, but couldn't keep it from tearing apart in mid-air. One minute spectators were cheering Paul H. Maguire's aerobatic artistry, and the next, they were pulling his body from the twisted wreck of his prize Great Lakes Special vintage biplane, on May 14, 1968.

Maguire, 51, was something of a showman, an insurance executive from Abington Township with a taste for the wild blue yonder. He hangared his plane at the old Montgomeryville Airport, where, every time he took off, he barrel-rolled his jaunty red, white and blue craft for the benefit of onlookers. 

He was flying a piece of history from the early days of barnstorming, under wings that had lofted Tex Rankin and Dorothy Hester, two of the best-known and accomplished pilots of the early days of aerobatics. The biplane was famous for looping and spinning through southwestern skies at air shows in the 1930s.

Now Maguire's plane, nearly demolished as it was, has yet to land for the last time. To the amazement of aviation buffs who knew the pilot or witnessed the crash, a museum in Oregon is restoring the historic craft to airworthiness.



"Holy moley!" exclaimed Emil DiMotta, a retired NADC test pilot who saw the accident and in recent years wrote movingly about it on the Naval History Blog.

"Wow!" said Vern Moyer, an aviator who worked at the Montgomeryville Airport and knew Maguire and his plane well.

"I was astonished," said Jim Armstrong of Green Lane, a former attendant at the airport who had many times hand-started the prop on Maguire's plane and who took a close look at the wreckage months after the crash. "What wasn't destroyed was bent, broken or distorted," he recalled.

"My understanding was, they were going to put it in the dump and it would have been paved over when they built the Airport Square Shopping Center."

To serious students of flying history, N315Y is a precious artifact, not fodder for a landfill. "It's not done forever, we're bringing it back," said restorer Tim Talen of the Oregon Aviation Historical Society in Cottage Grove, Oregon. 

The aircraft was built in 1931 as a showpiece for Princess Knock-a-Hole-in-the-Sky, otherwise known as Dorothy Hester, an Oregon woman who set records for maneuvers such as the Outside Loop and the Inverted Snap Roll in the 1930s. After the princess traded her flying helmet for a bridal veil in 1934, her even more famous teacher, Tex Rankin, acquired the plane and used it to entertain at air shows and salute wartime flight trainees with skywriting.



Maguire bought the plane in 1963, by which time he had been flying aerobatics for decades. The day of the crash, he was rehearsing for an air show at the Naval Air Development Center. The pilot had executed one flawless Square Loop, a stressful maneuver that involved steep climbs and dives, when Philadelphia TV newsman Tom Snyder asked him to do another for the camera.
Seconds later, "It looked to me like he lost power for just a fraction of a second, and the plane dipped like it was going over a hump, and when he pulled up, all of a sudden the wing snapped," recalled Ronald Hari of Middletown, a physicist at the air base who saw the whole incident.

The TV film captured the disintegration of the upper and lower right wings, which wrapped around the fuselage as Maguire fought to control the plane. Witnesses recall the craft falling as if in slow motion. Pieces of wood, metal, fabric and paint crumbled off and showered on horrified watchers.

It was the last flight of a highly skilled aviator, who left a widow and teenage daughter. The plane was hauled back to the Montgomeryville Airport, where it moldered in a hangar. 

According to Talen, the plane's revival began when plans for amateur builders became available from the manufacturer, the Great Lakes Aircraft Company, in the late 1970s or early 1980s. A hobbyist bought Maguire's plane, used it for a building project and eventually put it on the market in the mid-1990s. 

Talen saw an advertisement for the craft in an aviation publication and felt the museum would "desperately love to have that," he recalled. "We carefully looked it over (to make sure) that it truly was a correct airplane. You'd hate to buy a ringer."

The society bought the plane and hauled it back from Pennsylvania.

Restorers pored through aviation records and established that certain details were the work of Tex Rankin. Traces of the original red, white and blue paint remained under decades of modifications by various owners. The museum raised money for the restoration by soliciting donations, many from people who had seen Rankin's air shows.

These were aviation spectaculars. Rankin, who died in 1947 at age 53, set a world record for consecutive Outside Loops, executing 131 in a demonstration in 1931. He was a top instructor for civilian and military pilots, other stunt fliers and movie stars such as James Stewart and Errol Flynn. Rankin spent so much of his flying time inverted, his name was painted on the fuselage upside-down.

As you might expect, he was king of the flyboys, and was reputed to have zoomed through a hangar that had both doors open. "I'm questioning that story, but he was good, nonetheless," said Talen.

Hester was the darling of the skies, so proficient that she was invited to perform in the National Air Races while still in her teens. Rankin, her teacher, dealt in Great Lakes stunt planes and convinced the company to build her a craft of her own. The 19-year-old flier picked up her gift from the factory in Cleveland in 1931.



"She always talked lovingly about her Great Lakes Special," said Talen, who spoke with her while researching the plane. " 'But it crashed out on the East Coast, and it'll never come back.' She said that with a tear in her eye," he recalled. The pioneering woman pilot died in 1991 at the age of 80.

Two years before Maguire's fatal crash, his plane's right wing was damaged when the plane flipped over in a cornfield. He repaired the craft, but critical damage to a spar went undetected. An investigation concluded that the subsequent years of taxing aerobatic maneuvers had weakened the part and caused the crash in 1968.

On that day, the plane set another world record, this one tragic.

An article praising Great Lakes aircraft published in a 1970 issue of Flying Magazine contains an intriguing passage that seems to describe the Warminster crash.

The author mentions a plane with a 265-horsepower Continental engine "as well as the sad distinction of being the only Great Lakes ever to have come apart in the air when the top wing let go at the bottom of a square loop." The writer omits the pilot's name, but describes Maguire's craft and accident to a T. 

Moyer was aware of the Great Lakes' reputation for durability. When he heard about the accident in 1968, "The main surprise was that the airplane came apart," he said.

Yet the plane's reputation was borne out, to a degree. Major parts of the mangled aircraft held up even after hitting the ground nose first at a 70-degree angle.

"The left wing top and bottom really has no damage, just the right wing, and the tail surfaces were unscathed. We are using those tail surfaces," said Talen, who salvaged every airworthy part he could. 

New wings have been built, incorporating historic fittings and some of the internal ribs. The fuselage also is new. Many other parts have been replaced in earlier modifications, as well as in the current work. Talen estimates about 25 percent of the original craft will be incorporated into the fully restored plane.



He hopes to take the pilot's seat himself in a few months. "The plan loosely is to fly it, and to fly it to various air shows," he said. "I have visions of taking it to the big air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. After a couple of years, it will probably get retired and just get put in the museum."

The effort coincides with renewed interest in Maguire, whose fatal crash was filmed, aired on TV that evening, and then all but disappeared from local history. Tom Concannon of Quakertown wants to change that.

Concannon was stationed in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War. He never knew of the crash in Warminster until he read about it in this news organization's report in April. He proposes placing a memorial stone in a garden maintained by the Fleet Reserve Association, an organization of retired enlisted Navy personnel, at the former Willow Grove Naval Air Station.

Other pilots who died in air shows are memorialized there, Concannon said. "He's one of the guys we missed. Nobody ever brought it up," he said. "I think the guy deserves some recognition."

Today, even his granddaughters know little about Maguire, who died long before they were born. But he cut a dashing figure and cultivated a flying-ace image to go with his distinguished plane.

"He almost seemed like a pilot from the past," said Moyer, who knew Maguire from Montgomeryville Airport. "He was the kind of guy you looked up to, a nice guy. He took chances, of course, any time an aerobatics pilot flies close to the ground, you're taking chances."

DiMotta vividly remembers Maguire, between the first and second flights on his last day, climbing out of his plane with a white silk scarf at his neck "like he has just stepped out of a barnstorming magazine from the 1930s," he recalled in early April.

Armstrong cherishes a rectangle of white canvas painted with red numerals, the tail numbers from N315Y. Nearly 50 years ago, as the Great Lakes lay banished from the sky where it had frolicked for so long, he cut the letters from the plane's rudder as a souvenir of its fallen pilot.

"A reminder of better days," he said.

Story and photo gallery:  http://www.theintell.com

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