Ordinarily, LeGrand (Bud) Dawes, a 46-year-old TV repairman from Birmingham, is a steady soul. But every midsummer he gets restless. Come late July, Dawes climbs into his latest homemade airplane and flies north to Oshkosh, a Wisconsin town once famous for wardrobe trunks but now better known as the place where birdmen of many different feathers annually flock together. In the Experimental Aircraft Association, the burgeoning organization that stages the annual get-together at Oshkosh, there are thousands of flying buffs who are tantalized by the future, and thousands more, like Bud Dawes of Birmingham, who dote on the pleasures of the past. Indeed at this point Dawes is so taken with the antique joy of flying low and slow that he seems to be traveling backward.
Dawes has owned a factory-built Cessna 170 for five years. In that time he has averaged about 50 flying hours a year in the Cessna and close to 400 hours in home-built planes that are less capable and far less comfy. He first attended the big Oshkosh fly-in three years ago in a homemade Pietenpol Air Camper, a low-powered, open-cockpit craft less accommodating than a World War II primary trainer. The plane that Dawes flew to Oshkosh this year is of far more primitive design, aptly called a Breezy. It consists essentially of a wing, rudder stabilizer, pusher motor and bare frame fuselage. While dependable, a Breezy is about as comfortable as a park bench in gale-force winds.
Whereas those original fly-boys Wilbur and Orville lay prone on their first biplane pusher at Kitty Hawk, Dawes and his wife Shirley—whom he describes as "a very avid passenger"—sit erect when cruising at 65 mph in his Breezy, taking the air flat on. Upon seeing Dawes overhead, one alarmed Alabamian reported to the sheriff that some damn fool was trying to fly in a lawn chair. The snide pilot of an orthodox small plane once described Dawes' bare-frame Breezy as "a diverse collection of airplane parts flying in close configuration." Although he is equipped for dead reckoning, Dawes himself cannot resist bad-mouthing the instrumentation of his Breezy. When asked if he uses an air-speed indicator, he says that a calendar does well enough. Asked about his altimeter he explains, "I carry a 50-foot tape measure. When the end of it hits the ground, I climb." The altitude limit of a Breezy, Dawes maintains, is psychological. There is nothing between him and the ground except a 16-inch-wide seat that seems to shrink the higher he goes. "When I feel like I am sitting on a fence post," he says, "I know I am at 3,000 feet, and that is enough." Counting one forced landing on a highway because of fog, Bud and Shirley Dawes put down three times this year on their way to Oshkosh without even getting out of Alabama. Eleven stops and a day and a half after takeoff they reached Oshkosh, having enjoyed every windy minute. "I like to be out in the air," Shirley Dawes says, brandishing the obvious.
Because there is so much devotion by so many, Oshkosh has become for flying buffs what Capistrano is for swallows—a must engagement. There is one great difference. At Capistrano it is always swallows; see one and you have seen them all. At Oshkosh nobody knows what will fly in. At this year's record bash, the sky over Oshkosh was abuzz for tight days with this and that: pushers and pullers; high wings and biwings; low wings and midwings; gull wings, stagger wings and delta wings; genuine antiques, pseudoantiques and scaled-down replicas; boxy crates and slick bombs; thundering old warbirds and little home-builts powered by snowmobile engines; helicopters and gyrocopters; midget racers and ordinary Tripacers. At Oshkosh there were not only modern throwbacks like Dawes' Breezy, but also queer hybrids of yesterday and tomorrow, such as the Vari Viggen, a futuristic craft that embodies a forward stabilizer like the biplane the Wright brothers flew back in 1903. Not many people have seen a Dyke Delta, one of the few successful subsonic double delta wings ever flown. At Oshkosh there were three such. With its wings folled the four-place Delta designed by John Dyke of Fairborn, Ohio can fit it in a one-car garage and can be towed on its own landing gear over public roads. With its wings spread in flight a Dyke Delta resembles a batfish more than a bird. As a consequence, when he started fooling around with such a configuration a decade ago, John Dyke unduly attracted attention, just as Dawes does now in his poky, primordial Breezy. In that day unidentified flying objects were giving the public fits. What looked like a UFO over Ohio often turned out to be only John Dyke up there doing his thing in his delta wing.
Such is his passion for plane building that Dawes put his Breezy together in five months at a cost of $2,500. In contrast to such humble machines, the sportiest home-built at Oshkosh was a 285-hp BJ-520, a one-of-a-kind low-wing made by Dr. Bergon Brokaw of Leesburg, Fla. Dr. Brokaw worked six and a half years on his beauty; counting IFR instrumentation, it cost him $32,000. In aircraft building, as in all of life, you get what you pay for. While Dawes and wife were braving the elements, hippity-hopping north to Oshkosh, Dr. Brokaw was stroking along at 240 mph in canopied comfort at 14,000 feet.
The world's busiest airport year round is O'Hare International in Chicago, with up to 2,100 takeoffs and landings a day. During the EAA fly-in Wittman Field in Oshkosh makes O'Hare look bush. At Oshkosh 10,000 traffic movements a day are becoming routine. During one busy stretch an old Ford Trimotor lumbers down on the east-west runway followed hard by a Cessna, a Piper, a Beech, two more Cessnas and a bright yellow home-built God-knows-what. Meanwhile, on the north-south strip a squadron—nay, a maelstrom—of little fussing Pitts Specials swirls in, touching down a scant 10 seconds apart. During this commotion a Cessna three miles out inquires about conditions. One of the six air controllers in Oshkosh Tower of Babble answers the Cessna, "Right now anywhere from 3,000 to the deck, you're gonna run into a lot of strange company."
Aircraft home-builders tend to think small. Few of them are interested in designing a craft that will drive the present makers of commercial carriers any closer to bankruptcy than they already are. A four-place machine is about their ultimate ambition. While there were a great many awards given out for the best this or that at the EAA fly-in, the stars of the whole show without question were the products of James Bede, a chattering genius who is endowed with the low aspect ratio of Tony Galento and the constant high spirits of old Mr. Fezziwig. In his aeronautical career Bede has designed one production small plane and two experimentals. But despite all his achievements Bede did not really arrive, financially speaking, until he turned toward the home-builders, a segment of the aeronautical market that had never been well exploited.
Five years ago Bede produced in complete kit form a four-place airplane, the BD-4, selling roughly at a third the price of a comparable production craft. Bede counted on selling 10 of his BD-4s a year and has actually averaged 10 a month. Having succeeded by thinking small, he began thinking even smaller. Two years ago at Oshkosh he displayed a mockup of the BD-5, a little 13½-foot-long buzz bomb that would scorch along faster than 200 mph powered by a snowmobile-type engine. Since its cost was around $3,000 and its construction required little skill beyond operating a pop-rivet gun, the BD-5 was an instant success. More than 4,000 buffs made a $200 down payment before the plane had flown publicly. Short of designing something for chimpanzees to build and fly, there really was no way Bede could think smaller. But he did. At Oshkosh this year he came out with the BD-5J, a jet version that is shorter by a foot than the original because it has no pusher propeller and hub protruding aft. Because its 66-pound jet engine costs $18,000, the teensy jet version will sell in kit form for $21,400. Considering that the eight-place Cessna Citation, heretofore the world's smallest civilian jet, is 43½' long and sells for $725,000, Bede made quite a reduction in both price and size. Howling along the deck at 280 mph, looping and rolling, the home-built jet was a surefire scene-stealer for the first three days of the fly-in. On the fourth day it was almost a heart stopper. When Test Pilot Les Berven momentarily closed the attenuator on a landing approach, it failed to reopen. Berven got down unhurt but short of the mark, bashing one wing.
The show continued for four more days, punctuated by the happy din of piston clankers. Then, just as they had come, all the birds—the delta wings and the Breezys, the old and the new, the ordinary and the odd—flew noisily away.