Neil Winget: Friendship made on the ground, in the heavens

Neil Winget - Guest Column

They are all gone now, Dick, Smokey, Duke, and Chuck. All gone but me. We did something together that most people would never think of doing, or even believe possible. We built an airplane and we flew it.

Now it is not unusual for enthusiasts to build their own airplane. It’s an endeavor supported by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and thousands of people around the world have done so. However, what occurred in our case was so special, so rewarding, that as last man standing, I feel compiled to tell our story.

It began with a haircut at Dick Smallwood’s Barber Shop on West Market Street, Lima. In conversation with Dick, we found we had something in common, we were licensed pilots. A few hair clippings later we also realized we had a mutual desire to “build our own.”

After weeks of research, we settled on a design and proceeded to order a “kit” that was supposed to simplify construction of a flyable, two seat airplane. Ha! It arrived on a semi-truck in 14 boxes. Even the engine needed some assembly.

Undaunted, we went to work. Soon people were coming by checking out our project. We started getting volunteers who knew more about how to do things better than we did. One by one they joined the team. Chuck Daley was first, then Francis “Duke” Du Granrut, followed by Ross “Smokey” Stober. It took us about 10 months of work, three and four nights a week, and during this time a wonderful thing took place: new friendships, new ideas, and especially a reliance on one another that was absolutely necessary to get the job done.

We were not young men. Only Dick and I had not yet retired, and we were in our 60s. There were successes and setbacks, but things moved forward as our relationships strengthened.

After completion, a Federal Aviation Administration inspector looked over our work and pronounced it airworthy. He came from Cleveland, and as he got in his car to leave, gave us an admonition: “Please don’t fly it for a couple of days, I don’t want to pick up the Plain Dealer in the morning and read you spiked it.”

Sadly, the Duke never got to see it fly, he became ill shortly afterward and several months later passed away. We named the plane “The Duke” in remembrance.

Now for the rest of the story.

We practiced taxiing it, learning how it feels, etc. Finally, on Labor Day of 1999, a beautiful day, it was time to commit it to the air. All the while we were building it, Dick had told his wife Mary that we would hire a test pilot to take it up the first time. Well, we never did and it fell on me, lucky me, to be the test guy. Needless to say, Mary was not amused.

So, I did it, an experience that in retrospect I would not trade for anything; to get into a machine you and four other guys built, and take it into the air where it had never been before.

OK, I did alright at first, but on my second landing attempt I came down just short of the runway in a corn filed. I was so embarrassed. I had never in 40 years of flying experience, put so much as a scratch on an airplane. Most of the damage was to my ego. After repairs, we enjoyed about six years of flying. We later sold the plane to a man in Tennessee, and both Dick and I had tears in our eyes as he left with it packed on his trailer.

Recently, I purchased a stone plaque at the entrance to the EAA’s Fly-in with all our names engraved on it. The last words on it are: “Flying Together Forever.”

They are all gone now, Dick, Duke, Chuck and Smokey. Thanks guys, it was one of the greatest times of my life.

Neil Winget

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