Saturday, November 14, 2009

Historic Aircraft Restoration Museum

Our friend, Jim Leiter from Syracuse, visited us in St. Louis the first weekend of November. His hobby is photographing airplanes. Over the years he has amassed quite a collection, all neatly organized in binders. While I'm sure Jim was pleased to visit us in the big city by the big muddy, he was also really, really pleased to be able to visit the aircraft museum at the Creve Coeur airport.

Not many people even know there is a world-class museum along the flats of the Missouri River on the western edge of St. Louis at the end of an unmarked dead-end road past a farm stand offering hayrides the day after Halloween. As luck would have it Butch O'Blennis, an ALJ with the office next to mine, is taking flying lessons at the Creve Coeur airport and could give us directions. He knew the place is loaded with old planes, but had not had time to tour the museum. Butch kindly offered to accompany us on our tour. He had a lesson scheduled the day we planned to visit, so we agreed to get there in time to see if he had learned to land safely, yet.

Creve Couer airport is a private, non-profit created out of farm fields in 1983 by three vintage airplane fanatics, Al Stix, John Cournoyer and John Mullen. The field has evolved to include a paved runway, a grass runway and about 100 privately-owned hangers. Most of the hangers are used to house, restore or build small planes. It turned out Butch's instructor was ill the day we visited so he did not get to fly. While waiting for the museum to open we decided to wander through the rows of hangers to see what we might discover.

The place is crawling with small planes. We encountered a man wheeling a very small plane singlehandedly out of his hanger. He was happy to show us the homemade craft built around a VW engine. He claimed it was simple to build. I have no idea how he defines “simple.” I asked him how it flies. He raved about how much fun it is, the only problem is that it pulls pretty hard to the right on takeoff. He only figured that out while taking off in it for the first time. He's obviously a quick study.

At 10 am the three of us bought tickets to the museum [a bargain at $10 per person] and met our guide. It was airport owner, Al Stix. Stix knows virtually every detail of every plane in the collection. He knows where it came from, its complete history and how it flies. He has personally flown almost all of the planes in the collection and lived to tell the tale.

The airport's museum is comprised of three large hangars packed with about 50 vintage airplanes. Many of the planes are one of a kind. There's a 1916 Sopwith Pup with the original 80-horsepower engine, a Taylor E-2 [father of the Piper Cub], and the only flying de Havilland Dragon Rapide in the country. The collection also includes a rare restored 1930 St. Louis Cardinal. According to Stix all but a couple of the aircraft are flyable except for "the two or three that no one has yet had the nerve to try." Stix loves these old planes, but is not at all sentimental. "If these airplanes were really any good, planes would still look like this." Al and the collection were recently featured in the Simthsonian Air & Space magazine. You can read the whole article here:

To be honest I got tired of looking at old planes pretty quickly; it's not really a big interest of mine. We wandered through rows of shining biplanes, old monoplanes and some scary small vintage passenger planes with wicker seats. Al kept things pretty interesting with his tales of smuggling an old WWII Soviet flying boat out of Russia labeled as tractor parts or about how Lindbergh was tricked into falsifying parts of his own autobiography.

Perhaps Al's best stories have to do some serious daredevil flying. It is a very good thing that almost all of this priceless collection can be flown since the airport is located on the flood plain of the mighty Missouri. During the great flood of 1993 the entire airport was under 20 feet of water. The historic planes had to be flown to higher ground, many by Stix. One little two cylinder plane that Stix particularly hates hardly generated enough power to get off the ground. He flew it at treetop level looking for places to crash land all the way. While scoping out driveways to use as a makeshift runway he claims to have flown right by a guy brushing his teeth in a second story window.

Two hours later, we emerged into the sunlight, but Al had detected Jim was a truly dedicated fan and Butch was also seriously captivated. The three of them took off in Al's van to visit some treasures in more remote parts of the airport. I stayed behind to meet up with Merry. We waited for Jim in the little administration building where a cup of coffee costs $0.50 on the honor system and pilots sit around trading stories.

I wasn't sure we would ever see Jim again, but about a hour later he returned tired, hungry and very happy. As we got up to leave a snappy little biplane called a “Pitts Special” taxied up and posed for us. Then we headed off for a late lunch and the rest of Jim's tour of St. Louis.

1 comment:

  1. Why no pic of the Pitts special? Try