By Mike Lundin, EAA 748756
At the heart of this story is aviator Dick Pingrey, a force of nature from Selah, Washington, and his last two airplane projects he whipped into completion. Now 84 years old, the former physics teacher, aviation instructor, and flight engineer still mentors pilots and new airplane builders. Dick has flown gliders cross-country in Australia, balloons of his own design in California, helicopters in his home state of Washington, and airplanes everywhere.
Nothing keeps Dick away from his airplanes. A cancer survivor with two recent hip replacements, he was hobbling around his hangar within days of each operation. Dick’s fortitude, knowledge, planning, and tenacity have motivated a number of EAA members to complete their build projects: a plans-built, modified Breezy and an L-4 to J-3 Cub restoration. Arguably, building an airplane by committee can be harder than tackling it alone, “arguably” a well-chosen word. People make mistakes, personalities collide, and parts fail, as do motivated dispositions. Consequently, without Dick’s continued leadership neither the Breezy nor the Cub would be flying. His many mentees now embody the spirit of EAA, to build what they fly and fly what they built.
A decade ago, Dick sparked interest among some EAA Chapter 492 members in Ellensburg, Washington, in building Breezy N492BF. The letters “BF” in the N-number identify the Breezy Flyers Corporation they formed. Nine original BF members gathered around the Breezy idea, investing start-up funds, and commencing construction. With plans, under Dick’s leadership, members built or repaired Breezy parts in convenient locations. Dick scavenged Cub wings and a Tri-pacer tail and landing gear, and the BF group purchased and welded precut steel rods into an airframe. Dick provided countless materials, tools, hangar space, lots of elbow grease, and much needed mentorship. All original members had some mechanical experience; three were aircraft builders. Nevertheless, “do-overs” happened frequently, because members learned as they built.
Breezys are never exactly alike, and the building process became more challenging due to unique design changes. Consider, for instance, the yoke up front and stick in the rear, Dick’s idea. The complicated aileron/elevator linkage took at least four tries before it worked well enough for permanent installation. Control links to the engine, rudder, and brakes demanded customization as well. After five years of building, the AI signed off 492BF, elegantly adorned in blue and gold Macaw colors. The bird was ready for its flight tests. Of course, that was Dick’s job.
Within days of the inspection, the BF group gathered to observe Pingrey’s first taxi tests. The Breezy’s engine started immediately and taxiing went well, but when Dick was ready for the first hop, the bird would not rotate. After taxiing the Breezy back to parking, Dick explained that the faster he went, the more he felt stuck to the tarmac. Subsequent analysis found the Tri-pacer tail’s horizontal stabilizer angled trailing-edge-low, forcing the nose into the ground. Rebuilding led into winter, and eventually trial and error produced a viable mounting angle for the stabilizer. On a balmy spring day the re-tailed Breezy rotated easily, climbed quickly, and landed gently with Dick at the controls. That’s aviation pioneering.
The BF group has now been giving rides in the Breezy for five years. Even reticent riders relax in the air and return with a smile. Riding on (not in) the Breezy seems to leave passengers exuberant, yet peaceful, sometimes waxing poetic.
L-4 to J-3 Cub
Aviation is addicting; just ask Dick and his two partners in the J-3 Cub: John Bull and me. All three of us have interests in multiple flying machines. John and I blame Dick for enabling our habits but Dick’s is worse. While repairing his Robin and building a Swallow biplane, he still manages to keep his Ercoupe and his Esqual flying. Dick’s back burner is warming up at least two other antique airplane projects as well. I keep my glider flying while taking charge of the Breezy. Dick and I continue to work converting a Strojnik S-2 motor glider from gasoline to electric power. John owns parts of the Ercoupe and the J-3 conversion. We are all busy, but when Dick mentioned converting his old L-4 Grasshopper to a J-3 Cub, he hooked us again.
Dick flew that L-4 for years around Washington. When fixing and flying other airplanes climbed to the top of his to-do list, the L-4 came apart. Over time, some of its pieces disappeared; others hit the trash. Enough Grasshopper parts remained in the hangar, however, for Dick to invite John and me to invest in another dream machine: a modified Piper J-3 Cub. Completely rebuilt from bare metal to fabric, the conversion is now ready for testing.
Dick would claim the Cub conversion was more painstaking than the Breezy construction because changes to the standard class airplane required lots FAA 337 forms. The paper work worried us all, initially, especially Dick, who took responsibility for drawings and verbiage accompanying each form. Like Breezys, “Every Cub is different,” as our late friend, advisor, and IA Todd Braman told us, and that statement proved true. Many new parts needed strident coaxing to fit the old airframe. The most cussing occurred when we wrapped the fuselage before we put in the two wood floor panels. That said, our Cub is a beauty, flaunting more authentic historical coolness than any new, quarter-million dollar copy.
I’ve asked many pilots who are builders which activity they like best. From their responses, one cannot help but deduce a lively intersection of the two interests. Building and flying airplanes satisfies the need to learn, to venture, to struggle productively, and to feel the sense of exhilaration these actions elicit. Flying what one builds makes life interesting, and we seem to cherish that. Some of us, like Dick, also pass on the passion for doing both.
About five years ago, Dick taught high school student Beth Klingele to fly. Beth just graduated from college and earned her commission in the U.S. Air Force, first in her ROTC class. Before leaving for her first Air Force assignment, she flew her excited ROTC mentee as her first passenger on a late afternoon scenic tour around our valley. When the two women rolled to a stop in front of the hangar after one of Beth’s squeaker landings, one could sense how the flight left them exhilarated and empowered. All this goodness began with Dick, who shared his pioneering spirit with so many of us. We pass it on, and it makes our lives so much richer.