Unbroken Chain



By:  Matthew Northway

“CLEAR.” I walk the 8-foot wooden prop through its arc below the nose of this Brunner-Winkle Bird. A cloud of smoke blooms and the engine settles into a throaty chuff-chuff-chuffing idle. Again, I’m struck by the unbroken chain, forged by all the past owners, that has brought this Bird to me. Throttle in left hand, slender wooden rendering of a Louisville Slugger in the right, I taxi out and take off, levitating into ancient air, flying with those aviators again. A time machine, the dial turned to 1929.

Most airplanes this age have eroded into the dust of time or are entombed in museums. Yet here I guide this carefully maintained but unrestored antique over the farmlands of rural Oregon. Looking out through struts and wires, I’m suspended in air, almost motionless a thousand feet above the farm fields. Flying back through time, 1929 spreads out below. Only the shapes of the cars expose the truth.

Sadly, aircraft accidents occur after a chain of events and decisions. Break that chain anywhere and the crash is prevented. A converse theorem is also true; this aircraft is flying because of an amazingly unbroken chain of events and decisions made by its previous owners, always maintaining, repairing, updating. Had that chain been broken anywhere, it would not be here today.

Birthed in 1929 in Brooklyn, New York, it was a Curtiss OX-5 powered model A Brunner-Winkle Bird, equipped with tailskid but no brakes, radio, or starter. Intended as a ride-hopping, flight-training, executive transport, the Bird was reputedly one of the best flying planes of the many designed in the 1920s to use the low-cost but outdated World War I era Curtiss V-8. The model A Bird sold well in 1929, but by 1930, seeing the future, they began offering the model BK powered by a modern air-cooled Kinner radial engine. My Bird was one of last from the factory using the old, water-cooled Curtiss.

 With its outdated motor, it might have gone the way of most OX-5 powered aircraft. I don’t know where that way leads, but it must be into a deep, dark hole somewhere because there are darn few still flying. Thousands of planes have flown with the OX-5; only dozens do today.

The first link in the chain was forged before it was ever sold when the factory installed a new, innovative “Tank” motor before delivery. The Tank brothers of Milwaukee had developed a modification to the standard OX-5, replacing the water-cooled cylinders and radiator with eight finned, air-cooled cylinders. Very few Milwaukee Tank conversions remain today, but when Martin Mascio flew his new Bird home to Warren, Ohio, it was behind a thoroughly modern air-cooled V-8.

He regularly flew this plane, keeping it licensed, maintained, and adding hours every year through most of the 1930s. June 1937 saw it pass to its second owner, Fred Rogers, 160 miles south in Monongah, West Virginia.

Airworthiness records indicate that within months of the purchase, the Tank motor had been pulled and a Curtiss OXX-6 installed, an updated version of the OX-5. Perhaps Tank parts were hard to find, or the cost of an overhaul was high; regardless, the Bird continued to fly regularly with its OXX-6. Fred could have pushed it into the back of the hangar, but instead he kept the chain intact.

During the war, it seems that the Bird was partially disassembled and carefully squirrelled away. Kept clear of war-era scrap metal drives, it avoided the fate of many old aircraft. Another link breaker avoided.

After the war, aviation had advanced so quickly that old biplanes were now outmoded, often scrapped, simply left to rot, or converted to crop dusters to ultimately crash or corrode into rusty piles. Many prewar biplanes never made it out of the 1950s.

Too new for a museum, too antiquated to keep airworthy, it was saved by Fred’s resourcefulness. In 1949, he replaced the OXX-6 with the first 4 feet of a WWII trainer, a Ryan PT-22 with Kinner engine, engine mount, and accompanying sheet metal. The result was a 160-hp radial powered Bird. The Ryan nose job produced a unique profile unlike any Kinner powered Bird from the factory. It was flown regularly by Fred until 1956, then sold to his brother Elmer, and then to Bob Miller of Ringgold, Virginia. By 1958, it was for sale again, awaiting its next link builder, aviatrix Melba Beard.

Melba, a record-setting aviator of the 1930s and 1940s, had an affinity for Birds, owning six in her lifetime. By 1958, in her 50s and a mother, Melba was no longer competing in trophy races but still interested in Birds. Always the intrepid aviator, she traveled to Virginia and flew the nonradioed, nonelectric biplane back to Scottsdale, Arizona, by herself.

She flew this Bird regularly until 1982, selling it to well-known pilot/instructor Cliff Sterrenberg of Phoenix. He maintained and cared for it until his passing in 1990. Then an amazing thing happened. Nothing. It sat quietly in a hangar for 28 years, waiting like Tutankhamun in the desert. Ultimately arriving at the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM) of Hood River, Oregon, in 2018, it landed in the perfect place.

WAAAM is a museum that flies its treasures, all of them. They could have parted it out, used it for spares, or added it to their three other flying Birds. But instead, they reassembled it, made it airworthy, and sold it so that it could fly again. What a blessing it is to hold this end of an unbroken chain, reaching back across 93 years and seven previous owners.

With each smoky hand-start, each blind approach on final, each sooty oil change and annual inspection, I’m transported back in time, forging my link in this unbroken chain. Someday it will pass to the next link builder, but today with leather helmet and oil-spattered jacket, my Bird and I will slip our present reality and again step back in time.

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