EAA Chapter 25

A Community of Aviation Enthusiasts in the Twin Cities

L-4J

Filed under: Member Projects — admin at 6:11 pm on Monday, April 11, 2005

by Jim Maloney

from On Final April 2005When someone mentions the word “warbird”, what images does it bring to mind? The sound of a Merlin engine, and flash of a P-51? The lumbering silhouette and drone of a B-24? When America entered the Second World War, every person and company in the country stepped up to do their part. Piper aircraft and its employees were no exception. They made a few modifications to inthe J-3 “Cub” and dressed it in olive drab. It was designated the L-4 (“L” for Liaison), and it was soon to become the most feared sight and sound a German infantry soldier could know.

Weighing less than eight hundred pounds, unarmed, and with a sixty-five horsepower engine, the Piper L-4 series carried two men and a radio, and could bring more destruction than a squadron of B-25s. While circling the battlefield, the pilot and observer would scout enemy positions. Then, using the radio, they would direct artillery fire to accurately eliminate those positions. They caused enough destruction, and were so feared, that the German forces offered a two week pass for R&R to any soldier responsible for the downing of a Liaison aircraft.

The only defense the L-4 had was the ability to stay below the tree line. They would try to get past any place they were open to ground fire before anyone could get a shot at them. When attacked by an ME-109 or FW-190, the slow speed of the L-4 could be employed to make quick, tight turns. This would force the faster fighter to overshoot. There were several occasions where German fighters crashed while pursuing L-4′s.

The last aerial combat over Europe was between an L-4 and a Fiesler Storch. The Storch and its crew were shot down by the L-4 crew. They were armed with nothing more than a Colt .45!

L-4′s were used in the Pacific theater and all other places the U.S. Army and Army Air Forces were deployed. Some were kept stateside to help train the pilots, mechanics, and troops preparing to go overseas. This was the mission assigned to “45-4809″.

“45-4809″ rolled off Piper Aircraft’s Lockhaven, Pennsylvania assembly line on April 12, 1945. The Army Air Forces accepted it into its inventory on April 16, and on May 22, it started a long journey to Sheppard Field, Wichita Falls, Texas. It made several stops along the way, and arrived June 24, 1945. It was assigned to the 3706th Base Unit, which was a basic training unit at Sheppard Field, but it was soon reassigned to the 2532nd Base Unit at Randolph Field, San Antonio, Texas. The 2532nd’s role was defined as “Pilot School, Specialized, Very Heavy”. The group moved to San Marcos Field, Texas, and the aircraft was stored there starting in January of 1948. It was then transferred to the 5th Liaison Group, which was part of the Tactical Air Command, based in Greenville, South Carolina. It remained in a storage state in Greenville until it was sent to the Civil Air Patrol in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The last active assignment was with the Civil Air Patrol in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was once again put into storage in June 1954. It was declared surplus in 1975, and purchased by Jesse Millerd of Little Rock. He fell ill, and my wife Sarah and I bought the aircraft in 2001.

I had just sold my Pitts S-1S and found the ad in Trade-APlane. With a pre-purchase completed by an agent, the report came in: “It’s not a creampuff. It won’t win Oshkosh by any means, but it’s a good old Cub that just needs cables.” A deal was struck, so I jump-seated to Little Rock, rented a Ryder truck, and drove to the Pine Bluff airport. When I saw the airplane I had to laugh. Obviously, I should have checked out the latest conversion factor on the word “rough”. We loaded the airplane, and on the way out of town I called my father-inlaw, Don Eide. “So? What’s it like?” he asked with excitement. “Well, Don… We’ve got a project!” Not the words he really wanted to hear. The word “project” was not as disturbing as the use of the word “we”. Twenty hours of driving later, the world’s largest aircraft model box showed up in Don’s driveway. “No glue needed! Batteries not included. May need some assembly. Ages 5 and up.” My lessons in aircraft restoration and rebuilding were about to begin.

The next day we were ripping fabric off the airframe and discovering more of what we had to work with. It seemed a shame to get rid of the red Naugahyde side panels and wing root covers, accented by black vinyl seats (it was like the worst possible country-western bar had a fire sale). The rear stick had a P-51 stick grip. The N number was adorning the tail in half-inch sticky N numbers (one side was even put on backwards!).

Upon inspecting the airframe, it became clear that a few feet of each lower longeron towards the tailpost would need to be replaced. All window glass would need to be replaced, and patterns for them would need to be made from scratch. The complete instrument panel, with shockmounted section , needed to be replaced. All four spars had cracks near the spar attach fittings. The butt ribs needed to be replaced, due to larger than normal screws used to hold the wing fairings on. A few leading edges were dented, and the false spars were suffering from some dissimilar metal corrosion where the aileron attach fittings pass through. At some point a PA-12 rudder had been installed, which has a different shape than the L-4, and needed to be replaced. The floorboards were good for patterns. The straps holding the fuel tank were installed improperly, but the problem had been fixed at some point by wrapping them in several rolls of duct tape to take up the extra space. Every day seemed to end the same way. A sigh, a shake of the head, and a good laugh at the question “What was someone thinking when they did THIS?!”.

There were a few positive aspects of the airplane. The original knob to hold the sliding window was still in place. The instruments were all original military. The kickplate curtain at the end of the floorboards was still installed, as well as the sheetmetal that the mag switch mounts to. When we removed the fabric from the right aileron, there were pencil signatures from Piper employees, dated 1944, and a few from the Civil Air Patrol members dated 1952.

Little did we know that the clock had started the countdown of a four-year restoration. It took the entire four years to strip the airframe to it’s very basic form, make all necessary repairs, and rebuild it from the ground up. After reassembling the major components, we covered the aircraft using the Poly-Fiber process. Every nut, bolt, screw, and washer was replaced along the way. Oh Å  and eventually we got around to installing the new cables!

There was very little paperwork with the airplane when I picked it up, so I placed a call to the former owner’s son. When he answered the phone, he was sitting at his desk pondering where he should send a folder he had found. The folder pertained to the airplane, but he was not sure what information it contained. He dropped it in the mail. It contained the original military logbooks, a i r c r a f t checker’s logbook, airframe and engine history data sheets, Civil Air Patrol logsheets, and a few miscellaneous pieces of military paperwork. We now had papers that had signatures of the instructors that took the airplane out, the students who were being taught, the crew chiefs assigned to it, and the mechanics that assisted them. There are squawks logged and greasy fingerprints left behind when they were repaired. We were no longer just rebuilding another Cub; we were returning a piece of history to the air.

During the four years of restoration, we spent countless hours researching the aircraft type as well as this specific aircraft. We contacted Maxwell AFB, and received a copy of the Air Force’s history card on the aircraft to complement the paperwork we had already received. Through the International Liaison Pilot and Airplane Association, I was put in contact with Major Jon Engle (son of famous aviator General Joe Engle, of X-15 and Space Shuttle fame). Jon was excited to see the history of the airplane. He took all the history cards and decoded all the numbers and abbreviations to produce a “plain English” version of the units it was assigned to, and the dates it moved. We then contacted Piper aircraft, who sent us a fax that contained a confirmation that the serial numbers on the wings and fuselage matched the ones installed on the airframe in 1945! They were also able to tell us that it left the factory in olive drab, with grey undersides to the fuselage, wings, and tail surfaces, and had a Beech-Roby prop installed. The L-4 “J” and “H” models were the only ones to use Beech-Roby props, and they were removed by the military due to maintenance costs.

The engine on the aircraft was a Continental O-170. This was the military designation for the A-65. The engine that was on the aircraft was the last engine the military had installed, and was documented as such.

It had not been run for quite a while, and not knowing the exact condition, Don pulled one cylinder to allow for a closer inspection. After he freed the first cylinder, we knew that it was time to pull the other three. Two of the four cylinders, pistons, and the associated rings had deep grooves in them. So deep that I could see them clearly from halfway across the hangar! After some extensive research and cost comparison, we decided to make the only deviation to authenticity. We decided that we would replace the engine with a C-85-8 modified with the O-200 crank and piston conversion. Since the aircraft will be operated mostly during summer months, we wanted there to be no question about the ability of the engine to make power, should someone pull out in front of us at a fly-in. We turned to Don Swords, of Don’s Dream Machines in Griffin, GA. He is very knowledgeable in small engines. He guaranteed the engine turns 97 hp at 2475 rpm. (A stock O-200 is only turning out 75 hp at that setting.) How does it all work? Don’t know, but we love the way it climbs! WOW!! What an engine!! He also took care of ordering the correct prop for the engine selection, and understood that we wanted to preserve authenticity. End result was a brand new 72 inch, 46 pitch (W72GK46), wood Sensenich propeller complete with the old style Sensenich Brothers decals.

The original cowling could not be reconditioned, so I started collecting new and used cowlings, in hoping a decent replacement could be found. While we were dry fitting the fuselage to the bootcowl and engine mount, we fit the pieces that we had acquired. No two pieces fit the same, and none of them fit very well. I contacted Tim Wood, of St Louis Aircraft Metal Arts, and he agreed to hand form a custom cowling from patterns we would send him. Don used the old cowling, trimming metal from places, and pop riveting aluminum where material needed to be added. We boxed it up and shipped it off. What we received in return was a perfectly fit, hand made cowling. He even hand made new nosebowl pieces!

If I were to write a book on aircraft restorations, there would certainly be a chapter devoted to things that surface in twists of fate. I would think a proper title for that chapter would be “What are the odds?!”

We had been researching the aircraft paint scheme for some time, and discovered that there was little known about paint schemes of continental service aircraft. Jon Engle had sent me a several pictures of liaison aircraft being used in the training command, and one that caught my eye in particular was a picture of Sheppard Field based L-2s in flight. Even the Army Aviation Museum sent me a CD with a copy of all the pictures of L-4s that they had. We wanted something that would make the aircraft more visible while in the pattern, without compromising authenticity. Don’s brother’s former boss was in the Army Air Corps during the war, and had taken some pictures of L-4s. Fortunately he still had the negatives! He sent us copies, and not only was the serial number of the photographed airplane close to ours, but the paint scheme was identical to the L-2s from Sheppard Field! We had it! When the airplane arrived at Sheppard Field, they painted the nose, rudder, and hubcaps white.

I racked up several hours making long distance telephone calls and sending emails all over the world, trying to track down a genuine RCA manufactured, AVA-120 reel antenna. This antenna was installed in the aircraft to be used with the RCA radios the military installed in the wing roots. The antenna consisted of a drogue cone that was attached to 125 feet of copper antenna wire. The wire was fed through an insulator attached to the rudder, and a mast through the Plexiglass on the left side of the observer’s seat. In flight, the observer would let out the antenna wire, varying its length to help “fine tune” the tube radios. The only example of the reel antenna I could find was located in a Canadian museum, and they were not going to part with it for any offer. Shortly after I had given up and located a person that built replica antenna kits, I found the genuine article on EBay and, oddly enough, it was at South Saint Paul airport. The person I bought it from had purchased it in England with some radio equipment, and did not know what it had been used for. To me it was like finding the Holy Grail of aircraft parts! We then finished the antenna using several copied parts, such as the drogue cone and antenna mast.

I was then out to find several other parts that were needed for the restoration. Still missing were the fire extinguisher, first aid kit, pilot’s checklist, and a Beech- Roby propeller pitch crank. I located a Fyr-Fyter brass fire extinguisher with mounting bracket on EBay, as well as a first aid kit. The fire extinguisher needed a good cleaning, and polished up nicely. The first aid kit was emptied of its contents and taken to the upholstery shop for sizing with the new seat covers. The container is the perfect size for storing necessary flying items, such as fuel strainer, Leatherman, and ear plugs.

Now I was riding on a high, and I was determined to find the remaining parts to complete this restoration properly. I started on another quest to find the checklist, checklist holder, and a Beech-Roby crank. Another round of phone calls and emails, even an ad on Barnstormers.com, and I was beginning to think I would not be able to find these items. Then during a phone conversation with a fellow restorer, I mentioned that I had all the manuals and logbooks, but could not find a checklist. His response was “Oh, I have one, but it’s for an L-4J.” “Wait a second … I have a ‘J’! I have a ‘J’! What do you want for the checklist?” There was a pause on the other end, and I thought I heard the sound of an adding machine in the background. “I’ll just send it to you.” Not only did he have the checklist, but he also had the drawings for the checklist holder!

The Beech-Roby crank was located in almost the same way. A friend of the family told me that he had a Beech- Roby adjustment crank, but he thought it was for a panel mount, such as a Taylorcraft. He had no use for it, so he would give it to my wife as a Christmas present (after all, it is her airplane, too). What he ended up handing her was the correct pitch adjustment crank, and it was still in olive drab paint! We decided not to install the crank during the restoration, but put it with all the other archival material we had found.

One of the big lessons I learned during the restoration was that sometimes you have to reinvent the small things, and sometimes it happens through reverse engineering. I found a pair of “new old stock” Piper production covers, with the tags still attached, and took them to an upholstery shop to be reproduced. I had to give them permission to take one completely apart to create a pattern. What they turned out was an exact copy of the original, but to make it more durable; they lined them with a heavy boat canvas.

During the war Piper used a both vinyl and olive drab canvas for the front seat covers. I contacted Beechwood Canvas Works in New Jersey, which still produces authentic WWII canvas for vehicle restorations. They sold me several yards of the canvas that was used for vehicle seats during that period. Carrying only canvas, pictures from the L-4 manual, dimensions, and an empty first aid kit container, I stopped at Metro Upholstery in Burnsville. They did everything I had asked for, and did a high quality finish. They turned out the front seat covers. We also had them make a set of square pads to be used in the back seat, since the seat was originally designed to be used while wearing a parachute.

My mother-in-law, Ellen Eide, used her sewing ability to duplicate the kick panel curtain. She used the old one as a pattern, and some of the O.D. canvas, to create a new curtain to be used in the restoration. In the design of the airplane, Piper extended the floorboards behind the rear seat to accommodate the observer while seated facing aft. At the aft end of the floorboards, they placed a kicker panel that is angled up. The curtain covers the area from the top of the angled panel, where it attaches with snaps, up to the map desk. It allowed access to interior sections of the aft fuselage for maintenance, while preventing unwanted objects from finding their way into the elevator mechanism.

On March 1, 2005, an airworthiness certificate was awarded to “45-4809″. On March 3, it made its return to the air, after fifty-one years of storage. Since Don Eide had done the most work, he took the honors of the first flight. When he returned, it took a couple days for the facial muscles to relax, and the smile fade enough for him to talk. He reported that it flew “hands off” the first flight. Sarah and I were able to fly it to the EAA meeting, and experience it for ourselves. It is, by far, the best Cub I have flown. We are looking forward to taking it to several fly-in’s, and to Oshkosh this summer.

There were many people involved in some way with the restoration of the airplane. We cannot think of everyone that had some influence, but there are a few that need special mention. One who had a constant presence was Mike Niccum, of Webster, MN. Mike is an A&P/I.A. who ended up overseeing the project. He did the final welding of the lower longeron repairs, and was our “go-to” guy whenever we had a technical question. He’s a top notch mechanic, and very knowledgeable in all airplanes, from aerobatic to warbird. Most of all, Sarah and I cannot thank Don enough for all the time and effort he put into the project. It would still be in the Ryder truck if it weren’t for his jumping into it feet first.

Now you will have to excuse me, but I had four years to daydream about my L-4… and today looks like a good day to go flying!

2 Comments »

Comment by Much

August 22, 2016 @ 5:51 am

Hello,

Your project and website is passionating !
I am a Young french pilot and passionate by ww2.
I will soon start flying on a L4 and probably work on this aircraft to make it more complete !
I was wondering, where did you find the checklist for your beautiful piper ?
Best regards and keep making us dreaming!

Baptiste

Comment by Jim

November 20, 2017 @ 4:45 pm

Love Cubs – I enjoyed the article and I must say that if you’re doing ‘Warbird’ stuff then get into the plastic model world. As an aero engineer, lic A&P, model craftsman, and yes aircraft restorer… I must point out that proper colors can be found in the modeling world. Anyone doing WWII Euro aircraft models would know in seconds the OD and belly Gray numbers and be able to tell you which model paint company has the correct color so you can match. All too often I see multi-million dollar restorations of P-51’s and such ruined by wrong colors, especially chromate. For instance all P-51’s had yellow chromate structure and North American interior green or green chromate [yellow chromate with black added] not the apple green we see from the jet age. Korean F-51’s which were rebuilt would replace yellow chromate with green chromate. So you can find an incredible amount of finish information in the modeling community.

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