by michele sprague
This is one of the pieces I wrote early in my writing career. It's also one of my favorites. It's fun, interesting and illustrates what happened when a man decided he could restore a World War II Reconnaissance plane himself and save money. Wait until you see the final costs.
Locals flying high
Some people fantasize. Others make dreams come true. Two Swartz Creek men were bitten with the flying bug when they were children. Today they own private planes. Well, Joe McRee owns a plane; Ron Brown is building one from scratch.
McRee’s dream started becoming a reality when he purchased a World War II reconnaissance plane in the late 1960s from a private owner. It was the beginning of a dream because the plane was not air worthy.
“It had cancer all through it,” he said, explaining that the first obvious problem was deterioration on the trailing edge of the wings.
McRee, a Korean War veteran, said he purchased the plane for a couple of hundred dollars. And he had a $2,500 estimate to make it air worthy.
“I came home and told my wife, ‘I think I can do that cheaper. I’ll do it myself and find a mechanic who will sign me off.’”
Eventually the plane became airborne.
“I almost did handsprings when it first got off the ground,” McRee, 57, said.
His wife, Jan, expressed relief that the long project was finally completed.
The cost of restoration
- $2,500 to build a garage to house the plane
- approximately $13,000 for restoration
- over 9,000 hours of labor
- lots and lots of frustration
- neighborhood gossip
While reconstructing the plane, McRee was frustrated, his wife was frustrated, and his neighbors thought he was operating a still when he boiled water in large tanks in his back yard to mold wood.
“I tore all the fabric off of it, he said explaining that the outside of the plane had fabric on it. “It was in bad shape. “Look at the deterioration on this stuff,” McRee said as he pointed to pictures in the scrapbook. “Now, everything is new wood, and the wings are completely rebuilt.”
Before McRee rebuilt the plane, he reduced it to its skeletal frame. It looked like a giant bug from a science fiction movie.
“You don’t know how many times Jan saved it,” he said. “I’d get so frustrated because I didn’t know a lot about what I was doing. I’d get a five-gallon can of gas and was ready to go burn it all up. She’d say, ‘Sit down and cool off, drink a beer and let’s think about it.’”
Jan stuck by his side, being the supportive and helpful wife.
“She was right there all the time,” he said. “Just like a doctor and nurse. For example, those little nails had to be put in with needle-nose pliers. She would put the little nail in the needle-nose pliers, hold it by the nose and hand it to me.
Jan may have been helpful, but said she resented the plane.
“That’s all we did after work and on weekends,” she said. “There wasn’t any time for anything else.”
Now, that the plane is restored, the next project on the agenda is rebuilding an old car. But, agendas change. Jan said before they started working on the plane she made her husband promise that they would rebuild an old car when the plane was finished.
“I’ve always wanted to rebuild an old car,” she said. “Now I don’t ever want to do an old car. I don’t ever want to do another airplane!”
Ron Brown, 36, is building a two-passenger experimental airplane in his basement. The plane has removable wings and will be easy to store and transport.
The skeletal structure is finished, and Brown is running out of space. Now, he’s building a garage in his back yard for the pane.
Brown said he doesn’t want to set a goal for the plane’s completion. “This is just a hobby,” he said. “I do it in my spare time when I want to.”
He estimated the fiberglass and wood plane will cost between $10,000 - $15,000.
In August, Brown and his family will make their annual pilgrimage to the “fly-in” in Osh Kosh, Wis., and he’s going with a shopping list.
“There’s a fly market, not a flea market. You can get anything under the sun involved with aviation,” he said. “I haven’t really bought too much over there. But this trip I’m concentrating on nuts and bolts. I know what I need, and I know some prices now.”
He expressed excitement about the trip to Osk Kosh and described the people there as being like a family.
“People come from countries all over the world,” he said, explaining that people camp with their airplanes. “You’re actually crawling around underneath airplanes, looking to see how somebody built something.”
His nine-year-old daughter, Brianna, doesn’t share his enthusiasm for the trip. “We aren’t like Dad. We don’t get excited.”
His wife, Jan, said they usually tie the trip to Osh Kosh with other fun things.” He’s got something he really enjoys doing,” she said. “It’s a good hobby for him to do at home.”
Brown said, “Building a plane really doesn’t require any special skills. It’s just taking time and doing it right.”
But this plane maker is no stranger to building. He has a degree in industrial education from Western Michigan University, was a dye maker, taught welding for one year and is a manufacturing engineer at GM Truck and Bus Metal Fab. And he designed and built his house, including doing the electrical and plumbing work.
“I enjoy working and building things. I would like to try to build a metal airplane next,” Brown stated.
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The West Valley News
July 21, 1991