Aviation in the Golden Age


Sometimes I feel a little mischievous writing this column. I start out focused on a simple community story but, before you know it, I’ve stumbled onto something really exciting. Take this week, for example.

My friend Ry Keller is the president of the Northwest Montana chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (www.eaa102.org). This club started out as a bunch of (mostly) guys who built their own airplanes. It’s expanded to men and women who build airplanes, restore airplanes, design airplanes, or just like to hang around with a bunch of other folks who love airplanes. The Northwest Montana chapter is having a fly-in on Sept. 1 at the Ferndale Airport, near Bigfork. It will be a fun family event starting with a pancake breakfast, free airplane rides for the kids and, undoubtedly, quite a collection of cool airplanes. As Ry describes it, it’s a chance to “have pancakes with a pilot.”

So I suggested to Ry that maybe I could take his picture next to an airplane for this column. Ry doesn’t own an airplane, but he knows a lot of people who do. So he said, “Let’s meet over at Ed Horstman’s house. Ed has a Beech Staggerwing that I’m sure he’d let us use.” That sounded fine. For those not familiar with the aircraft, the Staggerwing was Beechcraft’s luxury, executive airplane of the 1930s. Sleek, plush, and about as much like your typical biplane as a Mercedes is like a Yugo. So I was happy to make the trip for a photo.

There are a few things you should know before you visit Ed Horstman’s house. First, it’s a fine house, but most of it is an airplane hangar. Second, although there is a Staggerwing in the hangar, that’s not what captures your attention. Because to get to the Staggerwing, you have to walk past Ed’s bright blue and yellow Stearman. OK, the Stearman is a classic biplane, not meant for executive transport. But if the Staggerwing is the Mercedes, the Stearman is the Ferrari. A sporty workhorse of an airplane with tandem open cockpits, it’s the airplane that comes to mind when you’re in the mood to dust some crops or do some barnstorming. Of course, you wouldn’t use Ed’s Stearman to dust crops. You might get it dirty.

Ed is refurbishing the Stearman and, as you look at the pieces he’s in the process of putting back together, you can see that Ed sweats the details. Take the guy wires for example. They’re not really wires, but stainless steel rods that have been shaped into little airfoils. Ed was in the process of re-threading and polishing one as we arrived. Look around Ed’s hangar and you realize you’re in the presence of a man who does a lot of polishing. (I took a clear picture of the three of us reflected in a prop spinner. Who needs a fisheye lens?)
The third thing you should know before entering Ed Horstman’s hangar is that there’s a lot of significant history to Ed and Ed is a master storyteller. (Ed, by the way, is 82 this year.) I should have had a recorder running from the moment I entered because I learned that Ed started out as a helicopter mechanic in the Korean war. At one point I looked at some of Ed’s memorabilia. Pinned to his wall was a certificate of appreciation signed by the inventor of the helicopter, Igor Sikorski.

But not one to sit still, after Korea, Ed became an aeronautical engineer. He worked for several of the major aircraft manufacturers of the era and did major testing or designed significant components of aircraft as diverse as the XB70 Valkyrie and the Phoenix air-to-air missile. Ed’s real claim to fame, though, came from Tri-Star. No, not the Lockheed jet, but his own company where, as a naval architect, he designed large trimaran sailboats (yachts) that are now afloat all over the world.

So, Sept. 1, Ferndale airport. Turn off Highway 209 at the fire station and follow the signs. Flying starts at 9 a.m. Breakfast is served from 8 a.m. to noon for $5. Little kids are free. Ed will be there, along with his Staggerwing, his Stearman, his Mooney, and his Aeronca Chief. And he’s just one of a number of like-minded folks you’ll meet.