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Sometimes When Aviation Runs In Your Family You Do Things a Little Bit Differently

We Built a Thorp T-18 in Our Wisconsin Basement. But How Did We Get It Out?

Photo Credit: Experimental Aircraft Association

Aviation has been a large part of my family’s life for nearly a century. My grandfather, Kenneth B Walton, imported a DeHavilland DH.60G Gipsy Moth biplane after spending time in England. KBW was the holder of private pilot license number 288. Known for his popular Kents restaurants in Atlantic City, KBW also worked on P-47 Thunderbolts for Republic Aviation at Farmingdale on Long Island during World War II before returning to his home on Brigantine Island in New Jersey.

KBW’s son John G Walton II (my father) was first introduced to aviation in a Fleetwings F-5 Sea Bird amphibian. JGW later informally learned to fly in Navy T-28 Trojans and TV-2 Shooting Stars from instructor pilot friends during his service as an engineering staff officer with Navy Advanced Training Unit (ATU)-200 and ATU-202 deep in South Texas at Naval Air Station (NAS) Kingsville. JGW obtained his private pilot license in 1960 and his IFR rating in 1984.

Navy TV-2 with ATU-200 flying over deep South Texas.

Dad sometimes flew a Cessna 172 (78 Sugar) out of Atlantic City’s Bader Field while we lived in New Jersey. That’s where my first flight took place…over Atlantic City and out over the ocean and our house on Brigantine. I was thrilled but also only seven or eight at the time. My very first trip on an airliner was a TWA DC-9 to the Air Force Museum in Dayton…to see a real B-17 of course.

JGW and I posing as riveters. Note complete inner wing section suspended behind us.

Dad had wanted to build his own airplane for quite some time when his work took the family to Neenah in Wisconsin, just up the road from Oshkosh, in the early 1970s. JGW went to his first Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Fly-In that first year. Bitten by the bug in a serious way, he bought a set of plans for John Thorp’s T-18 design, the required sheet aluminum of various thicknesses, started forming parts, and recruited yours truly as chief rivet bucker and quality control inspector. Strange noises emanated from our basement at odd hours. Did I mention the T-18 was being built in our Wisconsin basement?

Dorky me standing next to the fuselage on gear with engine mount temporarily attached.

When you live in Wisconsin and you want to build an airplane, you might be fortunate enough to have several options. Perhaps the easiest one is to utilize a barn, detached garage, or other outbuilding that is either already heated or can be heated. After all, it gets really bitterly unimaginably cold in Wisconsin and progress toward the first flight of an airplane would certainly be reduced during the winter months (typically from late August through early June) without available heat. It’s difficult to effectively wield tin snips or back up a bucking bar with mittens on. An attached garage might also be an option, again provided it could be heated, and that the family truckster would survive daily liberal cold-soakings in the elements while work on the airplane in the garage progresses. Engine block heaters should be standard equipment on vehicles sold in Wisconsin.

Dad standing next to the fuselage with engine mounted during November of 1977.

One other option is available to many Wisconsinites. Many Wisconsin homes come equipped with basements. In this writer’s opinion, no house should ever be built without a basement. Providing endless options for usable space that by nature is always cooler than the rest of the house, but warmer than winter’s frozen embrace outside, basements are, in a word, perfect. But when one decides to utilize one’s basement to build an all-metal homebuilt airplane, at some point in the process (preferably early) one must consider how the airplane will inevitably and eventually emerge from the basement. This somewhat thorny problem often renders the basement a non-starter as an aircraft construction zone.

Sure it’ll fit!

We talked occasionally about how we would get the airplane out of the basement. Because the house was built up a bit higher than the houses on either side of us and the basement floor was closer to ground level on the north side, the plan we spoke about most often was to blow a hole in the north side basement wall, dig out / redistribute enough of the berm dirt to create a ramp, and just roll the flying machine out. To the best of my recollection we didn’t talk about the method we ended up using very often if at all, but it made more sense than the basement wall hole idea. Seriously- calculating how much dynamite would create a suitably-sized hole in the basement wall without collapsing the two story house above it required some serious head-scratching.

Not something you see every day. Looking down through the hole in the dining room floor at the T-18 fuselage in the basement.

Then came word, not long before I graduated from high school, of an impending family move to Houston. The discussion about extraction of the airplane from our basement got real in a big hurry. The house went on the market. Dad went to Houston to find a hangar (and a house for us). But we had been working on the plane for six years in the basement. The fuselage was probably 90 percent structurally complete, as were the wing sections and tail sections. The engine was in the basement as well. So how did we remove the airplane from the house? Here’s how:

The Lycoming IO-360 engine emerges from the basement. Dig that 1970s wallpaper! I think that was our real estate agent looking up from the basement.

First, we dis-assembled the inner and outer wing panels, engine and landing gear frame, and tail surfaces from the fuselage- yielding several pieces of manageable size and weight to move. Then we moved the dining room table into the living room. After that we rolled up the carpet in the dining room. Naturally we next removed the chandelier from the dining room ceiling. Of course we reinforced the ceiling joist from which the dining room chandelier had unsuspectingly been hanging.

The fuselage has emerged without requiring major surgery on the dining room window. Hadn’t seen dad that happy all day!

Then we installed a block and tackle / pulley system in the reinforced ceiling joist in the dining room ceiling. Then it got real- we cut a large, but no larger than necessary, hole in the dining room floor and saved the floor section we removed. We removed the upper and lower sash from the dining room window. We, and by we I mean I, used the pulley system to lift the wing sections, the fuselage, and the engine up into the dining room and then pushed them out the dining room window. The fuselage fit through the opening with about an eighth of an inch to spare on either side. That made JGW very happy indeed.

Fuselage and inner wing section on the lawn. These drew a few stares from passing motorists. Note the Realtor’s sign.

 

Crating for the T-18 fuselage. Those movers cannot be trusted with anything not properly packed!

After that it was a snap. Build wooden crates to protect the main components during shipping (moving) to Houston, re-install the section of dining room floor and carpet (the china didn’t rattle in the dining room hutch any more afterward), and repair the ceiling and re-hang the chandelier. Did I mention we were showing the house while all of this was going on? Please watch your step in the dining room!

1981 shot of the T-18 getting ready to go flying. This was before the installation of the folding wet wings.

A little more than two years later JGW and my youngest brother Lee departed David Wayne Hooks Memorial airport in Houston bound for Oshkosh for dad’s first trip to the EAA Fly-In as a T-18 builder and owner. Over the subsequent years dad flew his T-18 to Oshkosh every year he could and all over the rest of this great country. He installed folding wet wings in it. The T-18 we all built together in our Wisconsin basement won awards everywhere it went and sometimes still does. Dad lost a seven year battle with cancer at home in Houston during the 1988 Fly-In. Because he was such a staunch advocate of the EAA from its beginnings in founder Paul Poberezny’s basement through its formative years during the 1970s and 1980s, so active in his local EAA chapter, and a friend to and willing conspirator with so many builders around the world, his name appears on the Memorial Wall at EAA Headquarters in Oshkosh and he is still fondly remembered by T-18 enthusiasts and EAA members nearly 30 years after his untimely passing.

JGW’s T-18 in the background with Lee Walton’s latest T-18 in the foreground. Some paint schemes are timeless.

Mom finally sold the T-18 she and dad had flown in so many times together to one of dad’s good friends who recognized how well it was put together not long after his death. And my brother Lee? He has built or rebuilt several T-18s himself, always using the same distinctive paint scheme JGW created for his T-18. Lee runs the Thorp T-18 Community website and is a true ambassador for the T-18 and experimental aircraft in general. He has also been for many years good friends with the family friend who bought dad’s plane. He’s doing a great job keeping the family name in the T-18 business. KBW’s great grandson and JGW’s grandson, my son John, has flown in the plane his grandparents, father, and uncle built several times now. He might even learn to fly in it himself. We’re just keeping aviation in the family. Four generations and counting.

Speaking of keeping it in the family, ride along with Lee and his wife Jamie in his latest T-18 on a quick flight south of Houston

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.