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Taking flight (again)

Clara City man restores antique planes from the ‘30s, ‘40s

Howard Kron, of Clara City, loves to restore antique airplanes from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Some of these planes were used as trainers during the Second World war, and the ones from the 30s were used as personal transports, corporate airplanes. Kron loves to restore all of them.

“We just completed one that was especially built for a gentleman named Charles Correll. He played Andy of the Amos and Andy comedy team back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and this airplane was custom built for him.” It was a regular line model, according to Kron, the vintage airplane guru, but you could personalize it with your paint job, paint scheme, interior, things like that.

“This airplane had been completed for him in August of 1935.” That airplane went on to be used as personal transport, Kron said, then it was used by a charter company in Detroit, where it got damaged a couple of times.

During the Second World War, in 1943, the plane was used by the Department of Defense, who leased planes they needed from companies, as well as people. “We’re not sure what it was used for, probably military transportation of officers, things like that. Then after it was returned back to civilian use it was used again by a company in Detroit for charter and sightseeing, and it got damaged again in the fall of 1945.

Kron said they didn’t have the original log book, but they don’t think the airplane had been flown since 1945. “When I flew it about a month ago, that was the first time that airplane flew since I, myself, was born. That was a unique airplane to build. It was kind of fun. We took it down to the bare frame like we do with all our restorations. They’re taken down to the bare tubing, and everything from there is rebuilt or replaced, and if we can’t find parts, which for some of these airplanes are getting hard to find, we manufacture them and make them just like the originals were.” Kron said some of it he does himself, some of it he has other people do who are better at metal work than he is, who are experts at it.

Kron went on to say most of the airplanes he gets are not complete. They’ve already been taken apart. Somebody started restoring them and just took them apart and left them because they didn’t have the time or the money to refinish them. “When we get them, we take them right down to the bare frame, the lowest we can go. We sandblast that plane, repair it if needed, repaint it and put preservative oil in the tubing, things like that, then we start back, one piece at a time, putting it back together.”

He just finished an older Stinson, averaging between 6,000 to 7,000 man hours of work on it. On the Stearmans from World War II, they average 3,500 to 4,000 hours. “It takes a lot of time. I have part-time help. I had full-time help for a while, but as the economy slowed down, we had to slim down ourselves. My wife and I pretty much do what has to be done now. She’s been working with me since we started doing this 35 years ago.”

Kron said he was always interested in aircraft. “When I was small, 2 or 3 years old, my dad had friends in the carpentry business that had airplanes. I remember riding with him a couple of times on his lap in the backseat of a Piper Cub, then when I was 14 I got what I call my first ride in an airplane. I got to sit in the front seat, and the guy let me fly it for a little while. That pretty much sealed what I wanted to do.”

He graduated from high school on a Friday, started a full-time job that Monday and took his first flying lesson that Tuesday night after work. “After that I thought as long as I’m flying these things it would be kind of fun to learn how to fix them and take care of them. I got into that about a year after high school, and the rest is history. I’ve stayed with the business ever since, so I’ve got just about 50 years messing around with airplanes.”

He began antique restoration 25 to 30 years ago. “When things were slow I’d always pick up a project and start working on it. Normally I’d get them sold before I had them finished.”

He gets the planes from all over…….Dallas, Houston, Oklahoma City, El Paso, Denver, Georgia, Kentucky. Today he finds them over the internet, but 20 to 30 years ago he used a newspaper that comes out every 10 days or so called Trade A Plane. It comes out of Crossville, Tenn. and goes worldwide. “Anything you want that has to do with airplanes, parts, services, you name it, anything with aviation, that’s what’s in there.” It’s about a 125-130 page newspaper, he said, and he used to watch that a lot. “If there was a project that was interesting I would look into it if I needed something to do.” He said he’d buy that plane and start working on it, and once he got a good start on it so people could see where it was going, he’d start advertising, and the majority of the time he’d have the plane sold before he was half finished.

“We’ve sold airplanes to people that were just learning to fly, to people that have got thousands of hours. They all have their own preferences.” A lot of those old airplanes had very poor brake systems, he said, and the electrical systems were very outdated, heavy and crude, so they upgrade safety features. “We put modern disc brakes on because that’s a safety feature – a lot of these old airplanes got wrecked because the brakes were so bad and people would get into a problem. The brakes would fail or not function properly, and people would lose the airplane, damage it.” Back in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s if they damaged an airplane and it was going to cost a fair amount to fix it, they just scraped it out. They didn’t bother to fix it. “Today, because there are so few antique airplanes left, if something gets damaged someone is always going to fix it. It’s like some of the old cars. They want to preserve them, keep the history of them, so no matter how bad they are, someone tries to fix it up.”

Kron said he’s gotten kind of a reputation of taking airplanes when people say, “Ah, they’ll never fly again; there’s too many parts missing, too many things wrong with it” and to him it’s kind of a challenge to see if he can get it back in the air. He said this is something he and his wife have been doing since they got married. “When I started my own business in 1975 she stayed with me and that’s where we’ve been ever since.”

He’s back on his original farm place by Clara City where he grew up, and they have a 76-foot by 104-foot shop they built in 1999 and moved out there. Prior to that he ran the airport in Montevideo for over 20 years. “I started my own business in Olivia in 1975. I started a maintenance shop there. In ‘79 I moved to Montevideo and eventually took over the airport and complete operation over there. In ‘99 we gave that up and moved out to the property we inherited where my mother grew up.” He said that farm has been in his family since 1904 when his great grandpa came up from Indiana and bought it. “I’ve kept enough land to have a landing strip and my shop. It’s nice to be out there by yourself – you can do your thing. When you’re at an airport you’ve got a lot of traffic coming through, and you’re doing a lot of different things. Here you can pretty much concentrate on what you’re doing and the airplane you’re working on.”


Howard Kron has restored many planes in his day, including this Sterman N555 that was restored from a complete wreck in 1989. Contributed Photo

Test flights After you’ve finished the plan and you take that first test flight, it can be a little apprehensive, Kron said, noting the last airplane he took up hadn’t flown for at least 67 years. “We did a complete restoration which I’ve done to many other planes too, and I was a little bit nervous at first. But once you put the throttle in and get the tail up and get the thing in the air, it seems like everything is going pretty good.” Kron said he’s been very fortunate. In all the airplanes he’s test flown and all the flying he’s done, he’s only had a couple of minor problems where things didn’t go quite as planned. “But so far it’s been pretty good.”

He said they had an engine problem right after takeoff. There was some air in the fuel lines, and it didn’t want to keep running. “About the time I thought I was going to be setting it down on the ground, I got it back into life and made it back around.”

On another plane they had a problem with the trim system, which is a cable or rod system, depending on what type of airplane it is. It takes the pressure off the controls for the elevators, the portion of the airplane that makes the airplane go up and down. Kron went on to explain that because airplanes never get loaded the same way each time, the center of gravity, which is the center of your weight, can shift back and forth depending on how the airplane is loaded. “You can adjust the elevator trim and that will take the pressure off and hold the airplane steady at a certain position. We had a problem with one; the cable came loose, and it went nose up on me right after takeoff. It was very difficult to control the airplane, and by the time I made it back around and got it on the ground, it was enough for one day.”

When things happen, you don’t have time to think, he said, you’ve got to figure out what’s going on and how you’re going to correct it because it could end up in disaster. “I probably wouldn’t have gotten killed, but I sure as heck would have wrecked the airplane. I knew right away what was wrong.” It was an old airplane, he said, and even though all the parts were fixed – the early airplanes have very little in the line of maintenance manuals, books and service manuals and that type of thing. “You’re pretty much on your own when you start putting one of these back together. Sometimes tension isn’t right on a certain cable or what not and that can cause a problem. That was the worst one I ever had.  That one made me a little nervous.”

When you take an airplane up the first time, you can check everything 100 times and feel like you’ve got everything covered, he said, but there’s always some little gremlin that will come and get you. “That’s why we call them test flights.” Kron said he usually flies the airplane five to 10 hours after he’s finished it to make sure there are no little glitches and everything is set the way it should be. “The first time I go up is always by myself.”

Kron said when the cable let loose, his wife was on the ground watching. “They didn’t quite figure out what was all going on because I was able to control the airplane fairly well. They didn’t have too much of a clue until I got on the ground and told them. That one I was a little nervous, but the rest of them haven’t been bad.” Kron said he’s test flown a lot of airplanes, including those on which he overhauled the engine. “When I was finished with those, I’d take them up and break them in, fly them for a while. I’ve flown a lot of airplanes the first time.”

Repairing a plane

On the early planes from the ‘30s and ‘40s and even up into the ‘50s they used a linen fabric the same as old bed sheets, but now with the newer process, they use a nylon type material that is very durable and will last almost indefinitely. “You’re going to get more concerned about what’s underneath than the fabric itself. If it’s applied right and properly maintained it will last indefinitely. I have an airplane in the shop right now that was recovered 34 years ago and outside of the paint being faded, it’s still in very good shape.”

Kron said the original, the grade A cotton as they called it, was good for 20-25 years back in that day. “They call this a lifetime fabric and there are several different processes. There’s not just one process. It’s all basically a nylon fabric.” When you put the fabric on you glue the edges with a very strong adhesive provided by the manufacturer of that product, Kron said, explaining you can’t pull it tight when you’re gluing it, but once the edges are dry you take a hot iron and iron it until you get it to the tension you want. “I go right down to Walmart and buy my iron. We calibrate them with a special little thermometer because there are certain temperatures we need to use. Then we mark them and go from there.” Once they get the material tight, they put on several coats of what they call DOPE, which is a liquid that builds up a surface on this cloth, fills in the weave, makes it smooth and gives it some protection. “After we put the first few coats of clear on we put several coats of silver on and its basically the same type of DOPE, but it’s got a very finely ground aluminum powder in it.” That’s done for two reasons, he said. It smooths out the weave more, but it also gives some UV protection from the sun’s rays, so if the airplane sits out a lot, it doesn’t dry rot the material underneath. It’s used as a protective coating and as a filler. “After that we put our colors on, whatever the customer wants. The color is the last step. They have new types of paint now, polyurethane paints that have the wet look so to speak when it’s finished, and they come pretty much ready to spray. You just have to add the activator, and you’re ready to put it on.”

He said they have color sanded and buffed them out a little bit, but you should put more clear over the top to do that because the amount of clear that’s in the top coat of the colors isn’t a lot so you don’t have a lot of surface to work with there.

“They come out looking really well, right out of the can. It’s all sprayed on. The manufacturer recommends how you mix your paint and that type of thing. You follow the manufacturer’s recommendation in mixing your paint and getting it ready. Once that’s done you spray it on. Put three to four coats on and you’re done.”

He said it takes a lot of time, and you wait anywhere from four to eight hours between coats. So if you’re going to put on three coats you put in a long day. “Most of the time it’s best to do it all in one day – best if you’re going to put the finish colors on to do it in one day for several reasons.” Kron said he doesn’t like leaving masking tape on any longer than he has to. He likes to get the masking tape off the edges as soon as possible so the tape doesn’t make a mark in the previous paint color. “When you paint more than one color, a lot of times you’re painting a base color and putting trim colors over the top so you’ve got what we call fresh green paint underneath, and then you’re going to put some trim of a different color on so you mask all that off.” The glue from the masking tape can leave a mark in your fresh paint that’s already under there, he said, so you don’t want to leave it on any longer than you have to. The shorter the time the less chance of any marks being left on the green paint so to speak. He said they let the paint dry enough so you can just touch it with your finger. “You will leave a little bit of a fingerprint, but it won’t stick to your finger. That’s the optimum when you put your next coat on so the two coats bond together.” If you let it dry overnight, then you have to scuff it again with fine sandpaper or a scuffing pad before you put a fresh coat on, he said. “Anytime we’re going to paint trim colors over fresh paint we also scuff it before we start the painting process because that gives us a better bond between the layers of paint.”

Kron said it’s nice to see the finished planes and see them leave. “You work on them for quite a while – it’s like anything else, building a house or fixing something up, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s kind of nice to get there.”

The grandkids have the bug too Kron and his wife have two daughters and six grandkids. “I have a grandson who is takes after me. I have had this one little airplane since 1977. I bought it in Tulsa, Okla. It’s a Piper cub but a unique one. It’s a side-by-side version of which there’s only 25 or 30 left of the original 300 or so that were built. It’s called the Piper J 4. He’s always been such a bug about airplanes, and he loves to fly. I signed it over to him when he was in kindergarten.”

Kron said it was kind of funny when the title card came back with his name on it. “We took a picture of it so he could take it to school and show all his buddies he has a real airplane. He’s not flying yet, but it’s a real airplane. I told him when he was 10 we’d get it down and start fixing it up so we’d have it done by the time he was big enough to start taking lessons.” That’s one of the projects Kron will work on this fall.

Kron said you can take lessons as long as you can reach all the controls; you just can’t solo, fly by yourself, until you’re 16. You have to be 17 to get your private license. Kron said his grandson is definitely a go getter, and his older sister has got the bug too. “Out of all six of my grandkids, they’re probably all going to try it once or twice.”

Kron still has his commercial license, his second class medical and his instructor’s rating. “I hope I can keep at it long enough to get them going.”

His own planes Kron owns nine planes but none that fly; they’re all in piles and pieces. “I’ve got everything from ultralights to a coupleof  Stearman projects left. But when you get done working on someone else’s, you don’t feel like working on your own anymore.”

As to what his most special plane is, Kron said that was a tough one because he likes them all. “I kind of like the old Stearmans, the old biplanes that were trainers during the Second World War.” Both the Army and the Navy used them, he said. “They’re fun to fly.” It’s always fun to fly an open cockpit, he said, but here you can only do it three or four times a year. “I’ve flown just about every kind of single airplane there is. I’ve flown some twins, I’ve been fortunate I’ve been able to fly many, many different airplanes through my time in aviation.”

It’s an interesting hobby/business he, said, but not the most profitable business in the world. “We’ve been very fortunate; we have airplanes flying in five different countries.” He sold one to a Glider Club in Austria back in 1990. “I went over there 10 years in a row and worked on it for them. Now we’re doing some business with a gentleman in The Netherlands so I’ve been to The Netherlands a couple of times. We’ve been all over Europe. We’ve been to England, and we got to see a lot of European countries. That’s one of the benefits of the business. We got enough frequent flyer miles to go to Hawaii twice. We did pretty good.”

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