I was a teenage girl with too much energy and too little direction, living in Alaska with my mother and her new husband. And my father, whom I’d seen very little of over the years, was in Port Townsend, Washington pursuing his new found love of airplanes, and in particular his “new” 1931 biplane. Propelled to buy an antique airplane solely based upon his romantic notion that he would be closer to the purity of flight, my father stopped at nothing to secure the airplane that had set his imagination on fire. He did some creative financing, and thus became the proud owner of a Student Prince biplane. He then began focusing his enthusiasm toward me.
The airplane was a rare beauty. It first saw daylight when it rolled out of a small factory on Swan Island, in Portland, Oregon. Aircraft Builders Corporation was a company founded with the support of Tex Rankin, a notable air show performer. The idea was to make a small production run of 100 or so sport biplanes. But alas, economics wreaked havoc with the plans and due to the Great Depression, only 3 factory certified Student Prince biplanes were completed. The airplane my father came to own one day was serial number 103 and registry N10686. The third and final Student Prince, ever. Three other airplanes that were in various stages of being assembled wound up at the Adcox School to be assembled by students there who were training to become aircraft mechanics. These airplanes, because they were not factory built, were registered as experimental category airplanes, and thus could never legally be utilized for profit. Today, there 3 flying Student Prince biplanes. Two factory built, and one experimental. According to the original logbooks, the first colors of N10686 were a reddish orange fuselage, and silver colored wings and tail feathers. It had a 90 horse power in line Cirrus engine that apparently was so unreliable that it wasn’t a matter of if it would fail, but when. The airplane spent its years in the Northwest owned by various individuals, and I recently learned that it had been looped around a bridge in Longview, Washington in the 1940s by one of its owners. Supposedly too, it had been used to teach Chinese nationalist women to fly. In order to accommodate these small students, the main landing gear had been shortened by four inches to make it easier for them to climb up onto the lower wing and into the cockpit.
My father had purchased the Student Prince from a man who had spent several years restoring it. It was a labor of love and perserverance. Assisted by his sons, infuriating his wife when the wings took up residence in the living room, and fighting for approval for a new engine installation with the FAA, the effort paid off. The Student Prince emerged looking like a jewel. To maintain authenticity, the plane was covered in Grade A cotton and hours of painstaking applying, rubbing and reapplying with butyrate dope were spent to result in a satin smooth finish. A color coat was applied, and the Prince began life again as a yellow biplane with a black arrow running forward on either side of the fuselage, and black leading edges on the wings. It also had a brand new, five cylinder Kinner radial engine. With 125 horse power, the engine produced a sound that was unmistakeable. A cross between a tractor and a Harley.
When dad took possession of his new airplane, he wasted no time. In short order he had burned out the brakes and annoyed his flight instructor with his enthusiasm versus aptitude ratio being askew. There was much for dad to learn. This airplane had nothing in common with the little Cessna 152 he had learned to fly in. The Prince had no electrical system, thus no lights, no radios, and no starter. If a person wanted to fly airplane they had to prove themselves worthy, gird their loins, stand in front of the engine, grasp the propellor and with a strong but careful pull turn the propellor briskly by hand to start the engine. Then, if one didn’t have the misfortune of being struck with the propellor, getting into the cockpit was another new experience to the uninitiated. One did not simply open a door and step civilly into the airplane. One climbed into the biplane as if mounting a horse. Grasping the edge of the rear cockpit, a large step up onto the lower left wing was required. Then facing forward, it was right leg up and over to place a foot onto the seat cushion. The right foot was joined by the left, and then one could finally slither down to sit. Hopefully the slither didn’t result in the throttle quadrant being bumped and the airplane lurching unexpectedly forward. Of course the Student Prince had a tailwheel, which gave it a very pert skyward aim while sitting on the ground. But the charm dissipated once one settled into the rear cockpit where the pilot flew behind the passenger. Sitting on its tailwheel meant that from the pilot’s cockpit, the view of the world ahead was completely obliterated by the airplane itself. This was made even worse when carrying a passenger, or in dad’s case his flight instructor. In addition to the airplane blocking the view, now it was further obscured by the back of someone’s helmeted head. Yes, there was so much for my dad to learn from the Student Prince, and most especially how to land the airplane on a runway that disappeared from his view once he turned onto final, and, if he were lucky enough to alight on the runway, how to keep the airplane straight when it seemed bound and determined to dart toward the ditches on either side. All while having nothing to look at straight ahead except the back of his instructor’s head. I’m not sure if dad was feeling the nostalgic romance of flying an old airplane when he was struggling to go in some semblance of a straight line and doing a mad tap dance on the rudder pedals. But he was determined to master it, and in a short time after he had burned out both the airplane’s brakes and his instructor’s patience, dad began to go out solo in the Student Prince and they began to get to know one another. What dad learned during this acquaintance phase, was that the Student Prince was honest to a fault and very forgiving of amateur mistakes. Soon, he felt comfortable enough to invite his friends aloft and many memorable experiences were shared.
In the meantime, along with the novels about airplanes and intrepid aviators, I began receiving photos of my Dad’s biplane. 8 x 10 matte finish pictures of him squatted down on the lower wing of a yellow biplane, wearing his leather flying jacket, squinting into the morning sun. And a gift especially for me, a photograph of the forward engine cowling, yellow and inscribed on it in beautiful flowing black cursive print, the name, “Lady Summer”. He’d had it painted on the Student Prince in honor of my 15th birthday. He would inscribe on those photographs, “To my daughter, Lady Summer. Love, your dad, Flyin Bryan”