August 23, 2001

World War II Airplane Still Buzzing Around Memphis Skies


While it is not being used to determine the position of enemy troops on reconnaissance missions, that may be just about the only thing different with the Piper L-4 airplane recently restored by Jim Wood's Flying Service.

Jim's L-4 came off the assembly line on February 17, 1942. That year there were 1,711 units produced, with a total of just over 5,000 of the L-4's being made overall between 1941-1945.

More than 50 years later, Jim purchased the airplane in Oklahoma City and transported it to Memphis. It sat in his hanger for nearly three years before Jim cleared up the time to begin the restoration project.

"We started in January and I would guess we spent more than 300 hours rebuilding the plane," Jim said. "The most difficult part of the job was finding some of the original parts. The air filters are sold old, the people at the Piper dealership didn't even know what they had when they came across a box of them in the warehouse."

Don't let him fool you, the restoration process took plenty of time as well. The process included totally stripping the body from the frame and sand-blasting the tubing and frame. The entire fuselage was painted and sealed.

The next step was the body cover, which consists entirely of poly-fabric. The material was stretched over the frame and glued into place. The fiber was then stitched together with more than 200 rib stitches in each wing alone. Once the material is in place, the builder uses a household iron to heat the material, which shrinks the material by as much as 12 percent to create a tight fitting cover.

The material then had to receive a minimum of six coats of sealant that protects the material from Ultra-Violet rays, which can drastically shorten the life span of the material.

Following the sealant process, two additional coats of paint were placed on the covering to give the plane its final appearance.

Jim had plenty of help during the process as Alvin Musser, an employee of Wood's Flying Service pitched in along with Jim's wife, Connie and their son Brad. Paul Applegate of Queen City and Jim Morgan of Memphis also contributed to the project.

The plane was then refitted with new pulleys, cables and other machinery as well as a new engine and propeller. While all the items were new, they all were also original parts for the Piper L-4, right down to the star decal and olive drab paint.

"Everything but the rear seat and a few of the pieces on the instrument panel are original parts," Wood said. "We spent a lot of time researching this plane so the end result has been a pretty realistic version of the planes flown back in World War II."

After taking a test flight in the plane one truly appreciates the bravery of the pilots who flew an L-4 into battle to recon the enemy. While it maneuvers well, the plane tops out at around 70 mph and has a low ceiling.

"It's no wonder that a lot of these planes were shot down during the war," Wood said. "However the L-4 did have some advantages like a short take off and landing distance. They could take off or land just abut anywhere."

While the L-4 was the first plane totally restored by Wood, his flying service annually fixes and rebuilds a number of planes.

He said there are likely fewer than 800 L-4's still in service. When Wood flew the plane to Keokuk, IA a few weeks ago for an air show, it was the lone plane of its kind to attend the week-long event.

That was just a week after the L-4 took its maiden voyage on July 16 when Jim and Connie took the plane for its first ride.

That's about the maximum payload for the plane, which basically is limited to two passengers. The plane itself ways 714 pounds and holds a maximum payload of 540 pounds for a total maximum flying weight of 1,250 pounds.

Jim said he's not sure what the future holds for the L-4. He plans to offer flying lessons in the craft, which offers a pilot the opportunity to receive cert-ification in a conventional gear plane, which has the third landing gear on the rear. Most modern planes have a tricycle gear system, with the third landing gear on the front end.

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