By: Norm Goyer
Every year immediately after or during AirVenture I receive many letters and phone calls regarding an airplane they saw at Oshkosh and they would like to buy one. Why? The callers heard they were fast and thrifty on gasoline and very inexpensive to buy. Sometimes I answer for them, “Looks like somebody has been talking about a Mooney Model M-20A or a Bellanca Cruisemaster that you saw on the antique line at Oshkosh. Then you looked it up on the Internet and you found several for very little money and you want to buy one of them. How close was I?”
“How did you know that? Are they that popular?” I could hear the bubbles bursting around the callers head as he realized that something just had to be wrong or I didn’t know what I was talking about.
A huge number of aircraft were built of wood starting with the Wright Brothers biplane to the de Havilland Mosquito of World War II, the twin-engine fighter that was a huge success, and built of wood. Why, there was a shortage of metal or it would have been built of metal you can bet on that. But. wood has always been lurking in the background for many types of aircraft. Aeronca Champs and early Cubs had wood spars and wood formers to give shape to the welded steel tube fuselage frame or the aluminum ribs, leading edge and trailing edge on the wings. Wood is an excellent material for aircraft, new wood, not old wood that has been attacked by worms and rot precipitated by moisture, the enemy of wood. Pilots forget how old these airplanes are. Many were built in the 1950s and 1960s over half a century ago. Before World War II Stinson built an excellent little three place Voyageur with a 90 hp engine. slots in the wing, but with a wood horizontal stabilizer. Why? Who knows. When these planes were new they were used daily by the CAP patrolling the East Coast looking for submarines and they found them and they dropped their little bombs on them. After the war, Stinson enlarged the Voyageur including a new metal tail and it became the highly respected Stinson 108. Hundreds are still flying today.
The Bellanca Cruiser Model 14 is another great airplane that will cruise at 150 mph with a 150 hp engine with four people. Not bad for 1948. But, it had a wood wing as did all of the Bellanca Cruisers. These baby Constellations (three tails) look like they would be fun to fly and they are. But many pilots have purchased them at a real good price and learned that they had to replace the wings due to rot. Because these were, and are, certified aircraft not anyone can rebuild them. Sell the engine and take your loss unless you want to spend thousands of dollars having a new wing built. You will never recoup your money.
There are a very few late model Bellancas out there. After the Cruisair came the Cruisemaster then the Viking, all Bellancas, and still with the wood wing. Vikings are occasionally available on the used market. After the original Bellanca company went out o6f business, Downer Aircraft took over the type certificate and built the 14-19-2 Cruisemaster by mating the airframe with a Continental O-470 of 230 hp. In 1958, Downer redesigned the airplane with a nose wheel and fuel injected IO-470 of 260 hp, and redesignated it the 260. The 14-19-3 260 retained the wire-braced triple tail into the 1962 model year. After that year the triple tail design was modified to a single tail with the same aggregate surface area, and manufactured as the Model 260A. The later Vikings retain the oversized vertical fin that contributes to the distinctive flying characteristics of the aircraft. The Viking model was born out of discussions at Downer for a bigger version of the “Model 260” with at least 300 horsepower. The company was based in Minnesota and employed skilled craftsman who manufactured the wing from spruce and the new 300 hp model was named the “Viking” in respect to the many Scandinavians of the area. Nice airplane, but have an expert check on the wood wing and then look for an insurance company willing to insure a wood wing airplane.
The Mooney M-20 and M-20As had a wood wing and wood tails. The empennage had to be replaced per order of the FAA. Why did Mooney build a wood wing? A Mooney factory engineer tells us, “Another factor in favor of the wood wing is the quality of the ride in turbulence. The ride of a wood wing is better than a metal one. Those of us with lots of time in wood wing Mooneys noticed right from the start that the quality of the ride in the metal wing 1961 B model was harsher and stiffer than the wood wing 1960 M20A model.
There are a lot of good airplanes out there, I highly suggest you leave aircraft with wood wings to expert woodworkers with loads of time and money. Some things do not get better with time and wood wing airplanes are one of them.