From a Baby Ace to a Tri-Motor

From a Baby Ace to a Tri-Motor

By Joe Kieszkowski, EAA Lifetime 13550

I began to express interest in anything involving airplanes as a very young boy. My dad was drafted into the U.S. Navy at the elderly age of 28 during World War II. 

He was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yards and was able to send home various items including lots of official naval photographs of various carrier aircraft operations in the Pacific during the war, plus some recognition models of various aircraft.

I was able to draw pictures of all the Navy aircraft in operation at the time. I had some toy airplanes that Dad obtained, and I eventually started building model airplanes.

At St. Rita High School in Chicago, I was enrolled in a pre-engineering curriculum. In my junior year, I enrolled in the aviation program. On the first day of school, the aero shop teacher, Bob Blacker, greeted the students and said we were going to do something different this year: build an airplane. I thought, “Oh boy, we’re going to build model airplanes in class! Way cool!” Wrong, silly boy, we are going to build a real airplane. It is going to be a Baby Ace, taken from the Mechanix Illustrated plans, drawn by Paul Poberezny and published in May of 1955.

So began the quest of building our Baby Ace. There were two aviation classes involved in the project for our junior and senior years.

Our classes built everything on the Baby Ace from scratch. Slowly but surely, under Blacker’s direction, our project was beginning to look like an airplane. We made various field trips to outlying airports that were being swallowed up by encroaching Chicago suburbia to try and cannibalize any and all things that could be used in our project.

A 65-hp Continental engine was secured to use on the Baby Ace and in our senior year, the covering project began. The wings were mounted to the airplane and it was really looking good. The airplane was painted black with orange wings and tail feathers. The nose cowl was burnished like Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis.

Our aviation classroom was actually located in a hangar adjacent to the high school football field and stadium. So, one warm day, Blacker said, “Roll it outside and we’ll start the engine.” First he sent one of the kids in class who had a driver’s license, to go to the local gas station and buy five gallons of gas. With the airplane outside, Blacker poured in the fuel, hand-propped the engine, and after a few pulls the 65-hp Continental came to life. When that engine started, a mighty roar came from all the assembled students watching.

Now began the ground testing of the airplane. Every day, during the lunch periods at school, a large crowd would gather to watch the activity. Blacker began the taxi testing phase slowly taking the airplane up and down the football field. He would pry himself into the cockpit, put on his helmet and goggles, and begin the testing.

St. Rita High School was a Catholic institution on the south side of Chicago run by the Augustinian priests plus many layperson teachers. One of the priests was the Rev. Fitzgerald who also happened to be a pilot. So, during the taxi testing, Blacker would enlist the aid of Fitzgerald who would come out to the hangar, dressed in his long brown cassock, and stuff his tall slender self into the cockpit of the Baby Ace, don his helmet and goggles, and begin the ground testing. By this time, a great crowd of students would be out to witness the activities.

As the taxi testing proceeded, the speed of the airplane increased. Before long, the airplane would taxi to the south end of the field, turn around and come roaring to the north with the tail up in the air. When this occurred, the roar from the student body was deafening. Of course, the high speed taxi only lasted a few seconds because the school buildings were rapidly approaching on the north end of the field. So, back into the hangar for more checking before the next day. Fortunately, the Baby Ace brakes worked very well.

While all this activity was occurring a new project airplane was started in our senior year. It was an EAA Biplane that now resides in the EAA Aviation Museum in Oshkosh. The Baby Ace was eventually sold.

Many years later, in 1977, I had the opportunity to meet Blacker in his new job with the FAA in Oklahoma City. He was responsible for writing all the new FAA mechanic’s handbooks — aircraft, engine, and general. He gave me a set of the new books.

I asked about the status of the Baby Ace, and he said he checked on the airplane annually and it was still an active airplane flying somewhere in Indiana some 20 years after our build.

Later on I became a full-time member of the 108th Air Refueling Squadron based at the O’Hare Air Reserve Station at ORD in Chicago.

While at O’Hare, I would occasionally see Paul Poberezny arrive at our base on business. He was the maintenance officer at our sister unit in Milwaukee. Although I did not know him personally, I saw him on occasion at the EAA fly-in and convention when it was held at Rockford, Illinois. I had become an EAA member in 1962.

In 1968, one of our flying club Champs was damaged by a tornado that struck the Roselle, Illinois airport where they were based outside. A friend met the insurance adjuster who was examining the Champ’s damages and was told that the company was looking for a pilot with a maintenance background to work as an adjuster handling aviation insurance claims.

So began my 30-year career in the aviation insurance claims business dealing with everything from J-3 Cubs to 747s.

In 1973, the EAA had a maintenance hangar at the Burlington, Wisconsin airport. The EAA museum was located in Hales Corners, Wisconsin. There was a fly-in scheduled at Burlington, but I was busy travelling and could not attend. I heard that a storm hit the airport and caused severe damage to several airplanes, including a visiting Ford Tri-Motor that was hopping passengers. I had already received a Telex from underwriters in London assigning us the claim on the Ford. I flew out to Burlington, saw the remains of the Tri-Motor, documented the damages with photographs and prepared my report to London stating that the airplane was a total loss. 

I arrived at my office at 9 a.m. the following Monday morning, and the receptionist stated that I had a call from a Mr. Poberezny. As I picked up the phone, Paul said, “Hi Joe, this is your friend Paul.” Paul said that EAA was interested in securing the salvage of the Ford, and it would be a kind gesture if our company could make a charitable donation of the remains to EAA.

I told Paul that if it was my decision to make, I would donate the salvage to EAA in a heartbeat. But, unfortunately, I was employed by British underwriters at Lloyd’s of London, which had insured the Ford for an agreed value and would pay the claim. They were entitled to any salvage value to help mitigate their loss. Paul said he was going to talk to some of his friends and see what they could do.

In the interim, I reviewed all of my salvage contacts and determined an approximate value of the wreckage. Looking at the remains of the airplane, the only things of any value were the three R-985 engines. However, the engines were R985-AN-1 models, meaning they were for fixed-pitch propellers only; they were not drilled to accept constant-speed propellers. This meant that the salvage value of the engines was minimal since they could not be used on aircraft such as the Beech 18, which was still very popular at the time. The only value would be to some crop duster aircraft that might be using fixed-pitch props. I pointed out these facts to the underwriters in London in follow-up reports.

Paul called back and advised he got together with a group of his friends and they were willing to pay $5,000 for the salvage. I reported to London, and they agreed to accept the bid per my recommendations. We prepared the necessary paperwork including a bill of sale and concluded the transaction.

Paul was pleased with the deal and invited me up to Oshkosh for the convention and he said he would give me a ride in his P-51. Unfortunately, I was overwhelmed with claims work that summer and missed the convention, the only one where I failed to make an appearance, and I lost my ride in the P-51.

For 12 years I followed the progress of the restoration of the Ford until its completion in 1985. Before it began its air show appearances, I wrote to Paul and asked if I could stop by to photograph the Ford Tri-Motor in its new glory. Paul wrote back and said that he would make the necessary arrangements for me.

My late wife, Linda, and I began volunteering every year at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh as it is now referred to, in 1997. We drove trams throughout the grounds and met a lot of wonderful folks from all over the world. Upon her passing, I worked alone with others on the trams until I married again in 2013.

My wife, Joyce, was overwhelmed at the scope of the operation her first time at Oshkosh; it was a jaw dropping experience. She was not a happy camper riding on the back of the tram as a conductor until she found a microphone back there. Then she was in her element. Although she really enjoyed playing tour guide on the trams, bouncing around on the back of the tram did not suit her back problems.

Joe’s wife Joyce briefs passengers before their Tri-Motor flight at AirVenture.

In 2014, we moved to the Ford Tri-Motor concession where we have worked for the last three years. Joyce has a photographic memory, so she began passenger briefings. She reviewed the briefing cards once and from then on ad-libbed the briefings sounding like a 30-year flight attendant. EAA’s Ford Tri-Motor is referred to as “Little Ford.” Privately to myself, I refer to it as “My Ford.” It’s been a lot of fun working the Fords and my only hope is to one day fly along as safety pilot.

Working at AirVenture has been the aviation high point of my life. That life is broken down into two periods. They are the six months of anticipation before AirVenture, followed by the convention and then the six months after reviewing all that has transpired. My only hope is that the good Lord allows me to continue for some time to come.

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