Antique Aircraft Directory

This was my first book, written in 1966 more as therapy to maintain my sanity than any commercial value. I'd had an auto accident and was sentenced to six weeks wearing one of those birdcage things that held my head in place with a bunch of vicious screws driven into my skull. Not a pretty thing to look at and even uglier to wear.

In a fit of nostalgia, America was caught up in the antique craze. As the old saying goes, "Grandma bought it, mother sold it and now I'm buying it back." Just about anything more than two generations old was in demand, cars, furniture and yes, airplanes. I'd even been captured by the craze. I had far more old clocks on the walls that anyone needs to tell the time and had a few guns tucked away but what I really wanted was an airplane with a round engine and required a "real" pilot to fly, not one of the current crop of tin cans with a training wheel on the nose. There were a few classic old airplanes around, known as "Hangar Queens" owned by over-the-hill pilots who refused to sell them while convincing themselves that they would fly them again sitting in the backs of hangars gathering dust. But the ultimate find would be one that had been sitting for years that you could buy, rebuild and return to service. There was even a fledgling group called the Antique Aircraft Association which held an annual gathering in Ottumwa, Iowa each year. The most popular conversation at these events was stories about where they found the ship and how long it took them to restore it. Finding such an airplane was the key because most of them had been lurking someplace since December 21, 1941 when the government grounded all civilian aircraft. The Department of War, as it was called then, issued an order allowing the government to seize any civilian airplane needed for training or other uses and grounding all the rest. Those grounded had to be "deactivated" and specified three methods in which that could be accomplished, remove the engine, remove the wings or "cut off the tail". The last method came from a military manual issued during WW-I telling officers how to disable an enemy airplane or one they had to abandon. Most owners chose removing the wings, mainly because it reduced the size to where it could be stored somewhere other than in a hangar at an airport. Most of them went into barns or other such buildings. By the time the war ended four years later, they had just become old airplanes and few of the owners wanted to bother with the cost of inspections and repairs needed to return them to service. To render them even less likely to ever fly again, the government dumped thousands of military surplus airplanes on the market, some going for as little as $100. Why bother with some old civilian airplane when you could have a big, fast, noisy ex-military trainer for the price of a tank of fuel.

Although there was a number of classic old airplanes lurking out of sight, the problem was in finding them. Of course, there was the tell-tale outriggers on a barn or other building to indicate that the doors opened wide enough to admit an airplane but most of them were in places only large enough for a car, tractor or a few horses. In response to numerous complaints of barnstorming pilots buzzing towns to attract attention, the government, through the Department of Commerce, began to issue registration numbers for airplanes in 1926. They began with No. 100 and were issued in rotation as the applications came in. The numbers were to be painted on the bottom of the left wing so it could be identified from the ground. Shortly after that, letters indicating the country of registration were added in front of the number. The letter "N" was assigned to the US and in order to warn people against riding in an airplane that might not be safe, the letter "C" was included to certify that it was a "Commercial" airplane. The letter "X" was to show Experimental and "R" was for Restricted. When they got into five digits, the numbers became so long that they dropped the "C". When the number of registration numbers reached 99999, they dropped back to three digits followed by a letter. This increased the available numbers considerably because once issued, a number never expired.

The CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) was formed under the Department of Commerce to be in charge of all civilian aircraft in the US and being a governmental unit, the immediately set about writing rules to cover flying of any sort. They soon became known as the Committee to Abolish Aviation.

The aircraft registration system was maintained by the CAA in Oklahoma City. Each registration number was on a folder which held all the paperwork ever generated for the aircraft to which it was assigned. Some of those folders became so thick that they filled several file cabinet drawers. The number of file cabinets grew exponentially and soon filled several rooms. The aircraft files were public records and one could go there and browse through the folders as much as they liked. The rule was that you could remove only one folder at a time and a CAA employee would return it to the proper location before you could get another one. The current registered owners were kept in a ledger much like a bank ledger and changed as ownership did. If you had the registration number, it was a simple matter to contact the CAA and have them look up the owner. The registration number was maintained for the airplane, not the owner and the registration was not a title such as they have on vehicles. Without the registration number, it was almost impossible to find a certain airplane.

By the late 1950s the CAA had become the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and the whole system had become so inefficient that the decision was made to convert all information into a computer. A bank of keypunch operators spent months transferring the basic information from each folder onto computer cards. By the time the task was done, there were racks of computer cards.

This was also about the time that the FAA was literally running out of registration numbers without going to six digits or multiple letters on the end, so they decided to expire all the numbers which no longer represented an airplane so they could issue them to new aircraft. The first task was to find which registration numbers were valid and which ones were for something that might not have existed for thirty years. They mailed out 160,000 "Aircraft Status Survey" forms to every name and address they had on file. Thousands of the letters were returned by the post office because the address was no longer valid, the people had moved, died or were simply unknown. They entered an * after the state on the computer cards for all the returned letters.

A year later they sent a second survey form asking if the aircraft existed, if it showed the current owner, it's current airworthiness status and it not, did they want the FAA to cancel the registration. In many cases, people who received the letters simply tossed them aside or else figured that the FAA was just meddling in their lives and refused to respond. For all the letters which were delivered but received no response, plus all those in which the owner said the aircraft existed but was not airworthy, an * was placed by the year of manufacture. Finally a year later they sent letters stating that unless they responded that the aircraft existed and they wanted to retain the registration, the numbers would be expired and issued to someone else. I knew when this happened, most of the classic old airplanes lurking in barns would be nearly impossible to ever find.

I had been looking for some sort of antique airplane to restore and I stopped by the FAA Aircraft Registration Center to visit with a lady who explained how the new computer could find anything within about twenty minutes, the time it would take for all those racks of cards to run through it. Then I asked her if it would be able to produce all the airplanes built before 1942 sorted by make, model and engine. She said it would take four sorts to do it but she could. Then, almost afraid of what the answer might be, I asked what that would cost. She replied, "Ten dollars per sort. that would be forty dollars."

I jumped at it and she told me to return in about two hours and she would have it for me. When I returned, there was a stack of computer paper about eight inches high. I paid the forty dollars, took it home and started searching through it. I found several good prospects but when I got to the Monocoupe, I found one not twenty miles from where I lived. It was in a lean-to hangar attached to the side of the barn, covered with bird droppings and dust. The lady said her husband bought it six months before the war and had been killed in France. Her second husband had no interest in flying but she kept it hoping that her son would want to fly, but he didn't either. I bought it on the spot.

It took several trips to get it in shape to fly and I brought it to the Amarillo airport where I restored it over the next two years. It took about the same amount of time to restore the Monocoupe as it did to build the Fokker and I can saw without hesitation that it's easier to build one from scratch.

I had that huge stack of information that probably wasn't available to anyone else so when I found myself house-bound with a broken neck, it was the perfect opportunity to do something with it. I transcribed all four thousand entries on a typewriter, had 2500 copies printed and advertised it for sale. I was amazed, a thousand copies were sold in the first two months. While many of the airplanes no longer existed, many of the addresses were wrong and some of the owners had died, it gave people a place to start searching. The initial printing sold out in less than two years but the sales had been slow enough toward the end that it did not justify a reprint. The president of the Antique Airplane Association estimated that the directory was responsible for bringing close to 500 classic old airplanes back from oblivion. It also provided a great source of information for aviation historians.


Copyright 2003 by Jim Foreman