Building the Aeronca took us four years. Four years of sweat and heavy lifting, designing, drilling, cutting, screwing, sewing, welding, ironing, painting – the most exciting, wonderful experiences I made during my summer-off time from the university, when I helped John Williams, or “John the Mason,” as I used to call him, because he was a Freemason, as his apprentice, from about 2010-2013. He once told me, “you work harder than the Mexican guys I hired,” and he meant it. He had my deepest admiration, because he was in his late 80s and still working so hard. He did not fly anymore, not because he couldn’t (he did have a license), but because he found it difficult to move his legs high enough to enter and exit his planes comfortably as he got older. All in all, he had built 13 planes (one-seaters and tandems) from scratch, using ancient blue prints and original scrap parts (no kits!) he traded with other old airplane buddies or found on this website:
Strictly speaking, my buddy John was not an airplane engineer, he was a railroad engineer. He didn’t have much schooling, and he told me that his English teacher let him sleep in class because he was always exhausted from his hard, physical work. He started working on the railroad at 16 and went to World War II at 18. He was stationed on a ship and never saw much war action; he went to Greece and remembered oranges, hospitable people, alcohol, and beautiful girls. He loved to fly and had taken flight lessons, acquiring his pilot license at 15, and he desperately wanted to work with planes. He told me he stood in a line of work-searching young men, and when he reached the clerk who had to write in his papers what he could do, he said he loved planes, and the lady said, “okay, airplane mechanic,” and wrote it in his papers and waved him through. From then on, he got his chance to do what he loved most in life, fly and fix planes.
In his mid-sixties, he survived prostate cancer. He once joked it took away his hair (he had none). When John retired from the railroad, he took up the hobby to repair, restore, and rebuilt airplanes. Now, he had the time, money, and space (he owned a big farm with no animals left, just wide open space and enormous sheds) to buy parts of historic planes that had been in a crash to restore them to former splendor. He proudly showed me an old newspaper from 1989, which had an article about him, where he is quoted: “We generally buy basket cases, bare bones… We take everything apart, clean it, repair it, or replace it. So when it’s done, it’s just as good as it was brand new.”
When I got to know him in 1997 during my exchange-student semester at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, he still had the big hangar at the airport (it got too expensive, so he stopped renting it); he had three sheds on his property, built by himself, just like his house at Branson Woods Rd., where the residents could name their streets, and where “Broken Prop Road” led to his house. This is where he stored his planes in the making. In May 2012, my buddy sent me a ppt that his relative, Richard Cannon, had created from John’s plane assembly photos, to show their local Chapter what it’s like to build a plane from scratch, rather than assemble a manufactured one:
He was a hunter and gatherer. Plane parts everywhere!!! This is one of John’s sheds. The skeleton below on the left belongs to a Cubby Short Wing, the skeleton in the middle is his own design, the yellow one is an Acro Sport II, and the engine is from a Continental C 85-12.
He ended up selling the unfinished ones; our Aeronca was his last big project. There was just nobody he could built them with anymore; his dear wife Doris, who used to lend a hand, suffered from Alzheimer’s, I got married to a musician and spent my whole free time with concerts and composing, and his own three children were not interested in building planes. He once had high hopes in his youngest, his daughter LeeAnn, whom he had taught to fly, but after she had gotten lost in the air, she was scared and never flew again.
The chronicles of my airplane building times can best be reconstructed by perusing the emails I sent to my then-boyfriend and later husband, David. In a diary-like fashion, I kept him informed about every step on the way until the Aeronca was finished.
Email to David dated July 10th, 2012:
“Okay, so here are the sides of our plane…. they’re really fragile; I would think if it brushes the treetops during a bad landing, the branches would poke right through! It’s just thin silk that will be covered with paint. The Freemason glues it on the bars and then straightens the silk with an iron. Later, he will cut out the windows where the glass goes in.”
Email to David dated July 11th, 2012:
“Yesterday, we glued the loose silk all the way down on the steel bars. The glue is so strong it crinkled the green paint and made it look yellow. It damages fingernails, too, I found out… The plane is in a stand that makes it tilt to one side, so one can reach to half of the bottom and tighten and glue on the silk there. Then, it is tilted to the other side, so we can reach the other half of the bottom. The bottom is already completely covered, and we have ironed some of the silk so it got really straight. The iron is not much longer than an index finger, and it takes quite a while….”
Email to Mary dated July 19th, 2012:
“I worked on the airplane today. The sides are covered and have seven paint coats already. Monday or Tuesday, we’ll be working on the landing gear, covering it with silk and painting over it. John is very protective of his plane and doesn’t let me spray paint the sides, lest I make it “uneven” 🙂 BUT I will be allowed to paint the landing gear with the so-called “dope” (nitrate-butyrate mix that smells really really good :)). It was almost too hot to work outside today, even in a hangar. I washed his truck and my car and got at least lots of cold showers…”
Email to David dated August 12th, 2012:
It’s my last day working on the plane, too — then, my summer jobs are officially over and preparation for school will start… Do you know what “aufly” means? Solution all at the end….
The Mason has been applying the red color today (it only gets two coats); how exciting! …
Now, the Freemason told me “not to fool the guy,” so I’m admitting honestly that the picture where I wear the mask and hold the spray can is fake. He didn’t let me paint anything, for fear the coating might become too thick or too thin…. BUT I mounted the metal screens on the inside with tiny screws! And I tore the newspaper down 🙂 It was like unpacking the biggest birthday present ever!! Do you like it? The propeller will be black. The blue stripe is not permanent; it’s something like scotch tape that prevents the red color of getting onto the creamy-colored part.
P.S. The Mason wrote that “the time went by aufly fast!” 🙂
Email to David dated November 6th, 2012:
“I need to drive to the Mason now to help him attach photos of the Aeronca to emails… he doesn’t know how to upload them from his camera to the computer and send them out. He’s advertising our red plane for $30K now. He put 20K in it, so he hopes to get something out of it. He has its “nose job” done (the propeller is black), but the door is still unpainted and uninstalled, so he’s selling it cheaper as “unfinished.””
Email to David dated January 29th, 2013:
“I’m going to the Mason tomorrow at noon to look at our plane — he said he would have the door painted white (the door was the most difficult part, since it didn’t fit in the hinges and he had to order a “new” one, but it came with bangs and bruises, so he had to straighten out the metal before coating it).
He always makes cornbread and spinach and beans for me (EVERY time I work there!!) and is totally proud of it — his wife can’t do it anymore; she forgets after five minutes why she went into the kitchen; but she’s actually very funny… she doesn’t hear very well anymore, and when Tom asked her, “Did you grow up in Anna?” she stared at him and asked, “Did you just ask me, ‘did you grow a banana???’ ” I have to say Tom has such a bad pronunciation that this was exactly what I had heard, too 🙂 Especially on the phone he is super hard to understand; one only hears “rrrr,” and in the beginning I always wondered why he greeted people with a grumpy “Yellow?”, but it’s actually, “yeahhello”….”
Later that same day:
“I really didn’t intend to work four hours on the plane today, but that’s what happens if one goes for “lunch” to the Mason…!!! I have new plane photos for you. He got the engine in the front of the Aeronca now, and he stained the used door in green and put white primer on it. When we mounted it, one hinge was too long, so we had to cut it off (he has lots of machines in his shed for cutting steel, and huge gas tanks…). He also had an ancient wood furnace in there, which made it super nice warm….
Inside on the floor of the plane, there are two spots where shifts and cables come out, and we covered those with thin steel guards, into which we had to drill tiny holes and fit tiny screws in. This work is too tedious for him, so I got to do it, and I managed without dropping the screws and nuts into the bottom of the plane (there are holes all around the things sticking out of the bottom, and it’s hollow underneath, so what drops is lost forever :)). Next Tuesday, we want to cover the right pedal in the cockpit with a leather-like material. We didn’t get to it today. By the way, we smear the screws with bees’ wax before putting them in. This was new to me. Seems like I learn something new every time….
The Mason had a deal with a guy who wanted to buy one of his engines for 12K, but it fell through, since the other guy didn’t get the plane he had wanted… so we’re keeping the engine to put it in the Cubby Short Wing we want to start in March… so far, it’s just a steel skeleton. Just to give you an idea of the timeline — in April, he will have worked on the Aeronca for two years!! He put 20K in it and wants to have 35 for it. He put in as many original parts as he could… there are other Aeroncas (they’re from 1949) on the market right now for 38K, but they contain lots of new parts. I hope he finds a sincere collector pretty soon. The plane will probably be finished by April, and he said he wanted to clean out his space and make some money for his kids… but he said if he can’t sell the Aeronca, he would be willing to trade for the skeleton of a Starduster!!! Heehee, I knew it — he’s gonna build another plane from scratch, and that’s his favorite one, that he has built two times before already, and it’s lighter and faster…!!”
Email to David dated March 12th, 2013:
“The Mason should really not climb high ladders anymore. He took a fall backward last week when he tripped over a metal ramp, and was still aching.
Then, he led me to the drawer in his hangar where he keeps his girly pictures and said, “I got something for you,” and gave me a lipstick (!!) he had found (it was used, argh), but I don’t wear lipstick, so after dipping my finger in it and smearing a bit on to do him a favor, I accidentally dropped it to the bottom of a drawer full of screws and nails and stuff…. Then, we did something every kindergarten kid can do: cutting out four little patches of artificial red leather, and slicing them in the middle, to cover up the holes around the pedals in the airplane floor. They won’t be visible in the end, since the cockpit coverage and the seat will be over them, but if they’re not covered up, anything that falls will vanish in the bottom of the plane… imagine someone’s ring falling down there — the person would need to cut open the belly of the plane to retrieve it!
It was easy… we didn’t even glue on the patches (what I would have done); we screwed them into the floor. I got to do this, since his hands are too big for the little screws 🙂 The Mason will talk to a guy tonight who wants to buy this plane, the unfinished yellow biplane in the second shed, and two engines…. He even came over and looked at everything for two hours, so I hope this one is for real… he’s a young guy, and wants the plane for his two sons to teach them flying with. That would be a good choice, since the Aeronca is a training plane: the two pedals under the front seat are for the guy who sits in the back (the trainer), who can use them to control the plane when the student in the front messes up… both of them will have a stick for navigating, too. “
Email to David dated May 15th, 2013:
“Thanks for coming out with me to my buddy. It meant a lot to me, and I’ll never forget that! And really, next time, you get to “make the decisions”! John the Mason likes you. I went back to him at around 1:30 to do the work on the windshield holder (that’s the thing he showed us he wanted to do next, with the two rounded metal bars), and he said that Doris had forgotten already that we had been there — but not true!! When she came out the door and saw me again, she said, “your friend is a very nice young man!” 🙂 I still think she’s doing very well, and I wouldn’t notice anything wrong with her in conversation.
The job he had to perform could really just be done by two persons; one standing on the inside, and one on the outside of that bent metal part that will hold the windshield. It will simply slide in there, and then he puts silicone on it; no welding or screwing — I was surprised. He worked from the outside, applying pressure to the thin metal, and I crawled inside (and got wood splinters in my hand from the board in there) and drilled tiny holes. Then, he put very short silver things marked “3/16” through the holes from the outside. I had to pass those things to him from out of one of his countless drawers… He makes funny comments sometimes! When I said, “here’s another screw,” he said, “Those are rivets; you have screwing on your mind” 😉 After the holes were made, he put a *rivet* through from the outside, I had to hold a heavy metal block against it from the inside, and he applied an air gun from his side. It was terribly loud, but it flattened out the stem of the rivet and made it look like it had another screw head on my side… Took us several hours to finish that thing. He had to file the holes and get rid of the metal splinters. I thought we would be much faster…”
Email to David dated May 27th, 2013:
“I’m still at the Mason, but going home soon… worked on the plane since 9 a.m. At first, I finished up the floor work by screwing in more tiny screws through the red PVC to cover the holes, where stuff could fall through into the belly of the plane. Then, he gave me four dirty, rusty rods; they are very important and very strong (they could pull a 10 tons heavy truck!), because they’re meant to move the tail of the plane and carry the whole load of the back of it. I had to scrub them with sandpaper until the black paint the previous owner had applied to it came off… After that, I had to brush laquer thinner on the two joy sticks (which were painted black, but underneath completely rusty) until they were all silver. I sanded them to make them smooth after that, and applied gray base color from a spray can, and then red color from a spray can. We did it right next to his white truck, and I was a little worried to make red spots on it — nothing happened, though…. we made pretty sure where the wind came from!! Alas, John the Mason had a little accident… he was not wearing his usual aviation cap (I got one, too :)) when he was welding, and he tried to multi-task and take off his welding goggles while holding the lit torch in one hand, and he burnt a little red hole in his head ;( He’s not wimpy, though, and he held a cold Coke bottle to it for some minutes, and then it was okay 🙂 Luckily, he didn’t have any hair to burn!!!”
Email to David dated July 2nd, 2013:
“John the Mason is putting the beans on the oven right now and preparing the cornbread (as usual…), so I get a few minutes to send you a report of our work so far…. At first, we had an electrician come in… the other guy on the picture is Dick Cannon; he also flies (he was the one who had to land in a cornfield because he ran out of fuel!). John needed to make sure that he had wired the connection of the cockpit dashboard right, and his meter to measure the connectivity was broken, so he asked Dick to come. We grounded the right cable and used the left one for making contact (you can see the L/R button in the middle of the dashboard where the key fits in). When Dick was gone, we worked on the two little white flaps that go on the tiny back wing. We couldn’t mount them yet, because the hole is the place where the metal tubing that runs through the belly of the plane gets connected, and we need to insert that first. John held the metal flaps in place, and I marked the places where the holes would have to go that he needed to drill with the machine. In the end, the hole will be covered all up, of course. After that, we started with the metal rods that go from the engine in the cockpit up and along the front side window and through the plane. We cut out a piece of black rubber tubing and fit the metal rod in there, because we needed an angle, and we can’t bend the metal, but the rubber bends well. We’ll put another metal rod at the other end of the rubber tubing to connect two metal rods. The rods will move the tail wing when the pilot presses a switch in the cockpit…
We’ll have lunch break soon, and then we want to mount the front piece around the cockpit and the engine. That’s the most exciting part. After that, the metal rods need to go into the plane, and later, the joysticks and the seats, the door, and the windows, the wing flaps will go on, and finished. I don’t think he’ll put the wings on before he actually sells it, because then it will take up a lot of space. He has another guy who is interested in buying the Aeronca! It’s a 91-year-old pilot from Florida… John would be willing to pay for half the transporting costs if he really buys it and takes it back on a trailer to Florida… but he says he’s “a spunky old guy,” and we don’t know if he is sincere about it yet. The Mason just sent him printed photos of the plane (the guy doesn’t own a computer), so in a few days, we should have a reply. He would need to drive here to look at it in person…”
“So the two metal rods were for the cabin pressure and the outside pressure. I marked the important one for the inside pressure in red, so the new owner won’t get confused. We put the thin metal sheet in the front and fastened it with bolts for now. Was a pain in the *** because one was riveted on from the inside, and it was almost impossible to stick a bolt through… I’ll go back on Thursday and Friday for some more work. We want to install the windscreen next, but in the meantime, the Mason needs to do some work I can’t help with.”
Email to David dated July 24th, 2013, regarding my typing up John’s memoires:
“The Mason just dictated me some paragraphs about his dad, his sister, and the end of the war…. he also fixed some mistakes… I always type the French “troupe” instead of “troop,” and since he doesn’t speak very clearly, I wrote “hose” instead of “hoe” — heehee, he tilled his mother’s garden with a hose :)”
Email to David dated September 10th, 2013:
“We started around 9 a.m. (after oats and raisins for breakfast) with the wing work. The wings are very long, about 3 meters, and one is already finished with its red stripe, and lies in the Mason’s garage. The other one, parked under the carport, still needed to be taped down with old blankets and newspaper, so the red spray paint to make the stripe wouldn’t go onto the wrong places…. Alas, when the Mason spray-painted the other wing, it was a very hot day, so he had a big fan running, and the air from it got the red paint droplets all over the white wing, so he had to clean it ;( We noticed another trouble — the plane cannot be closed at the belly, because the two steel sides don’t align. He got one bolt in there, but the second one won’t connect…. either, we’ll need to bend it down with force, or re-align the screws that hold the bolt, and move them closer together…. but not today!”
Email to David dated October 14th, 2013:
“Here are some more plane pictures for you… and also some history: the Mason’s first log book from 1942!! He got it when he was 15 and was undertaking his first local flights…. We didn’t work on the plane today; just unwrapped some struts he had painted silver and covered with newspaper, so the silver spray paint wouldn’t get on the black parts.”
Email to David dated October 19th, 2013:
“I cut the Mason’s big hedge with our new hedge trimmer today (he oiled it, too), and then he ran out of jobs for me to do, because it was too wet outside, and the plane is “boys only” now, since I’m not allowed to spray paint the front or mount the tail on. But it’s almost ready…
The Mason was heating up the hangar, so the paint would dry faster and I wouldn’t freeze. “
Email to David dated November 12th, 2013:
“John the Mason says “hi” — he finished painting the front part of our plane and the propeller, and hopes you admire the shiny thing…”
Email from John Williams to me dated July 18th, 2014:
“Hi Good buddy Christina, After you left I got to thinking if we removed the rear panel we could look right down the wires, so I started to do so.removed the panel on the door side and have the rear panel loose except for the small fucking screws on the right side of the hole that the cables go through, not the fucking cables on each side of the fucking airplane. It has been the worst fucking airplane I have worked on, so if you can help me tomorrow we will get this fucking airplane going.Come when you wish but 9 would fine. I wish you a good night and plesant dreams. Your Old Buddy OF John”
Email from John Williams to me dated September 20th, 2014, when my boyfriend David was in a clinic:
Christina, every one needs help from time o time. I truly believe that there is a great force around this earth that helps any one who asks. I had this happened to me some thirty or so years ago.I was working on my back in the garage trying to put a belt on my riding lawn mower. It was a large belt that went on pulley that was between a rear wheel and the transmission, a very tight place that you could hardly get your fingers in to. I had just about wore my self out, got up and sat in a chair, said Lord I need help and rested a while, not thinking of what I had just said, I thought
I am going to try it one more time. Layed down stuck it up there and it slipped right on the pulley. I had a cold chill like you never feel and I realalised what had happened. I don’t say this happens all the time, in my case just a few times, and never when I had said a prayer, always a surprise and a chill. Hang in there it will work out. Hope to see you tomorrow. Your Buddy John”
As I got more and more involved with David and his health issues, John the Mason finished up the remaining works on his plane alone. He was there for me, always, 100%, in his rough, good-natured way, without questioning.
He never finished dictating his memoirs to me for writing a book about all his planes. A lawyer I had met at our pastor’s 50th anniversary had convinced him to do this. He had said his hands were too stiff to type fast (and my written grammar was better), so I had begun to write his story, which was a very intriguing, simple yet captivating narrative.
Throughout the years, he had helped me with things in the house and yard: he installed my mailbox and house number, he planted an oak tree in my front yard, he repaired my boyfriend’s kitchen cabinet, he transported a ping pong table to his house, he fixed my lawn mower’s blade, he ran several auctions at Doerr’s Auction Sales with me, he cleaned out David’s rental home after the eviction of his unreliable tenant, and and and. He is even quoted in my 2003 dissertation about the Freemasons. I had painted his garage, shed, and soffits, cut his hedges, hauled away his storm-damaged, cut-up trees, washed his windows, cleaned his gutters, raked his leaves, burnt them in a huge fire where we grilled sausages, rode his lawnmower, did computer work… even put our Aeronca on eBay, but it did not sell there. He always made sure I was well taken care of, warm, and fed – good and frugal, and had plenty of work and good talks. He wrote or called every day to inquire how I was holding up while my boyfriend was in the hospital. He drove me to the visiting hours and to pick him up from the clinic. He rejoiced when my boyfriend came home, and congratulated me when we got engaged. He prayed for us.
He sold the finished Aeronca for USD 26,000. I married in 2014, we started with IVF in 2015, I had other things on my mind, and time went by. Emails from my buddy John became scarcer, and then non-existent. We called each other or met Sundays at church, or for handyman’s work at his place or ours. His visits to church became rarer. In 2017, after my husband had died and John’s wife Doris had passed of Alzheimer’s disease, I had to move my pregnant body to Clarksville, Tennessee for a new job. When I came back to Carbondale, Illinois a year later with my infant son Leander to visit, I drove out to Branson Woods to see my old buddy, together with a mutual friend from church, and I am glad Mary came along, because he didn’t recognize me anymore. He said: “I’m happy that you visit me, but I don’t know who you are.” He did still remember David, though. We had lunch together (his favorite stuff from Taco Bell), and it was pleasant, but not the same.
John died on January 14th, 2021. He was 93. I received his obituary in The Builder from United Baptist Church in Carbondale, IL, where I had been a choir singer with him for the ten years I had lived there.
Later, I read his beautiful and humorous obituary on the net. This excerpt describes how he took his soon-to-be wife on a “joy ride”:
“John was very active in the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the Experimental
Aircraft Association (EAA) and a founding member of the Carbondale EAA Chapter 277. He
watched as the local organization grew from 3 members to over 100 participants. He delighted in
trips to Oshkosh, Wisconsin and Ottumwa, Iowa for fly-ins and Doris always went along. She
understood his love for flight and had known it from the start. On one of their first dates he took
her for a ride, she in the back seat. He regaled her with the maneuvers he did and after he told her
he would then do a “wingover” she grew strangely quiet. When he looked back moments later she
was holding on with white knuckles, eyes shut tight. She was waiting to fly upside down! She didn’t
know then that a wingover is a very steep turn with a small, sharp descent. She was always game to
ride along, but she could take it or leave it. Nevertheless, his joy was in the cockpit—whether in the
air, in his hangar, or building it in his shop.”
This was the end of a beautiful friendship.
Fly high, good buddy.