By Christopher E. Lehner, EAA 1175034
What a happy day it was when Bob Mohr of EAA Chapter 640 in Wausau, Wisconsin, said I would be the new owner of its Mechanix Illustrated Baby Ace Replica. On June 29, 2016, I read the advertisement for the Baby Ace on the Barnstormers website. It explained that the Baby Ace replica had been Paul Poberezny’s last homebuilt project before he passed away and went on to say any offers would be followed by an interview, since the chapter wanted to ensure the Baby Ace would be going to a good home.
In my interview I was asked, “What’s this love affair you have with the Baby Ace?” Well, I first flew one in La Porte, Indiana, (PPO) in 1985. A friend of mine purchased a ragged Baby Ace for $1,600 and told me that anytime I wanted to fly it to go right ahead. That’s all it took; I was airborne and I was hooked. It was so much more responsive than the other types of planes I had flown. The Baby Ace was cold, windy, loud, and you wore it. Being suspended in the fuselage under the 25-foot-long wing provided a cool (figuratively and literally) effect with the added benefit of great visibility and shade. I loved it.
This Baby Ace replica up for sale was extra special. Paul started to cut tubing for it in 2011. In 1955 Paul’s first Baby Ace catapulted EAA into the public eye. Mechanix Illustrated contacted him about writing an article on building your own airplane at home. With the help his wife, Audrey, Paul wrote three articles on how to build the Baby Ace for less than $800, engine included. With this second Baby Ace Paul would be coming full circle.
So, I bought an airplane exactly how you’re not supposed to do it: over the phone and sight unseen. However, Bob did provide me with some information: The fuselage was constructed by Paul in Oshkosh while the wing was built by an EAA chapter in Indiana. After Paul’s passing, EAA Chapter 640 in Wausau completed the airplane in 2014, just before EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.
I was able to see the airplane in person for the first time during AirVenture 2016. I was excited to be back at Oshkosh, and the Baby Ace was more beautiful than the pictures. With money exchanging hands I was asked when and how I would be getting the Baby Ace to my home on the West Coast. Well, I would be flying it, of course.
“Really? Wow, that will be a heck of a trip,” was the response to my answer.
That September, I met Kurt Mehre in Wausau and flew the Baby Ace for the first time. It was a beautiful evening with light winds. I went out, got some altitude, did some steep turns and a stall then hustled back to the airport for three landings. I was grinning ear-to-ear. Kurt and I changed the oil for the trip, then I went off to get a late dinner before bed.
The weather was perfect on day one. Inside the baggage door are three signatures from the Poberezny family: Paul’s bride, Audrey; daughter Bonnie; and granddaughter Audra. Their spirits would be flying with me along with all the hundreds of others who had a dedicated hand in this project. At 90 miles out I looked over my left shoulder and I could just make out Rib Mountain. The sky was a deep blue and the visibility was at least 200 miles with a light tailwind flying westbound. Life was good.
My game plan was to follow I-94, joining I-90 at Billings, Montana, then over the passes in Montana to Spokane, Washington, then southwest to Camas. I planned fuel stops for no longer than two hours of flight time. The A-65 in the Baby Ace burns 4.1 gallons an hour. At 70 mph and 12 gallons of gas total, one quickly surmises that many fuel stops will be made.
After 7.8 hours of flying I arrived in Bismarck, North Dakota, for the night and after getting the Baby Ace tucked away in the hangar I checked the weather for the next morning, which included a high wind warning beginning at 10 a.m. for northwestern North Dakota. I was up at 4 a.m. and out at the airport. The wind was out of the southeast and already starting to pick up speed. I chose to leave civilization along I-94 to remain south of the high winds. The terrain varied between “I could land there, if I had to,” to “don’t fail me now engine because I’ll be a goner.” I was over the Badlands and they looked rough and tough.
While overnighting in Miles City, Montana I planned my next leg, which would involve crossing my first pass, Bozeman. I had previously asked Kurt if he would see how well the Baby Ace would climb up to 8,000 feet, and he reported that she did great. I also had chatted with several pilots with experience in ferrying airplanes east and west. There were a few options but most of them were eliminated when it comes down to only 12 gallons of gas on board.
I stopped for fuel in Billings, departing in calm winds and sunny skies. I was now flying along I-90. In the haze ahead I saw the outline of the mountains and felt really small. Up ahead was the town of Big Timber, where the interstate turns 90 degrees left. As I made the turn I entered moderate turbulence and 25 knot headwinds. My ground speed was 45 mph and cars were speeding past me. So much for Bozeman at this speed, better plan on staying in Livingston.
As I approached the airport the wind was straight down the runway, but it was a fight to get the little Baby Ace to the airfield. As I descended on final I was almost at full power down to the numbers. My ground roll was almost nonexistent. I taxied slowly to the tiedown area, fearful that the Baby Ace was going to get airborne.
The next morning was beautiful: The sun was still below the horizon, no wind, and a beautiful takeoff. I could see Bozeman Pass in the distance and began climbing. It took 30 minutes to get from 4,500 feet to 8,000 feet. It was cold due to the freeze level dropping to 6,500 feet overnight, but the view over the pass was amazing. I cleared it by 1,500 feet and set course for Helena.
Departing Helena I crossed MacDonald Pass, which is at 5,900 feet and the little Baby Ace was up over the top. I was now in the heart of Montana mountain flying.
Later in the evening my flight to Shoshone County Airport was fantastic. Calm wind and unlimited visibility with some puffy clouds and unbelievably beautiful terrain made for an unforgettable flight. Lookout Pass was the last of the Montana passes and the open cockpit view was superb.
At Shoshone County I met the airport owner, who loved the Baby Ace, took some pictures of it, and then I was on my way to Spokane, past Lake Coeur d’Alene. The sun was getting close to the horizon as I approached Felts Field. I was cleared to land on Runway 22L and as I approached the field I saw a beautiful grass runway paralleling the asphalt. I asked tower for permission to land in the grass and it was so nice and smooth.
As I cleared the runway I saw a hangar with EAA on it in big letters. I asked ground if I could taxi to the EAA hangar and permission was granted. As I taxied up to EAA Chapter 79 I was greeted by smiles and looks of disbelief. I saw my timing was perfect, the grill was going and I was quickly offered a hamburger. Many members knew all about the Baby Ace. It was fun sharing the airplane, its history, and my flight with them. We took many pictures and had fun chatting about their very active chapter.
After an overnight, I started my last day of flying. I joined the Columbia River and it was a rodeo ride from The Dalles Dam to Cascade Locks, Oregon, and then it was calm and smooth. I had done it, I knew at that point the worst was behind me. Just one more landing at 1W1 Camas, Washington.
How strange it was to see my home aerodrome from the cockpit of the Baby Ace. I circled the airport and brought it in on grass Runway 25 to a greeting committee at the hangar. “What a beautiful plane,” was the verdict and I couldn’t agree more.
After 26 hours and five days of flying the Baby Ace and I had bonded. It was built strong and had brought me home safely.
I couldn’t help but think about Paul during my flight — seeing America from an affordable homebuilt airplane — I believe this is what his vision was when he launched EAA with the Baby Ace in 1955.