by Nigel Hitchman
Ala Doble, California 14-16 Oct. Flying Days & Invitation Fly-In
Walt Bowe and Carlene Mendieta opened up their collection last October and hosted an invitational fly-in in conjunction with Marginal Aviation who adopted the event as their “Last Ditch” fly-in.
Vern Dallman built the Ala Doble Ranch airstrip in the eighties, basing his collection of airshow aircraft at the field. Sadly, Vern died in an accident in 1998, and when his wife died in 2016, the property ended up being sold – narrowly avoiding the ignominy of becoming a cannabis farm! Thankfully, Walt and Carlene rescued it from this potential fate…
Soon after their purchase, some of Walt’s collection moved into the existing hangars. They built another large hangar to supplement this space, but this also filled up quickly, so two new hangars are now under construction to house additional exotic antique aircraft. One extremely rare aircraft which returned “home” was Curtiss-Wright B14B Speedwing NC12332, which Vern Dallman once owned for many years.
People came from all over the USA and beyond for the event (I came from England) knowing that it would be be a unique opportunity to see so many magnificent rarities in the air while also meeting up with friends old and new. Many of the same people attending Oshkosh in July and Brodhead in September were also here.
And what an event it was! You never knew what was going to fly next, with most of the aircraft having been prepared for flight in the days before, then placed on display outside the hangar. Probably two-thirds of the locally-based collection took part, several of them flying multiple times. Complementing these beauties was a fabulous selection of visiting aircraft too, around fifty in total – most of them vintage types as well.
The biggest highlight for many (myself included) was seeing Lockheed Vega 5C NC13705 in flight. Constructing the airframe at their factory in Burbank, California, the Lockheed Aircraft Company delivered this Vega to the Shell Oil Company as a state-of-the-art executive transport. A half century later, John Desmond, rediscovered the by-then flightless Vega, and tasked his company with restoring it. Sadly, Desmond did not live long enough to see the project completed, but the trustees of his estate ensured that happened, albeit without the Vega actually flying. Desmond’s estate loaned the extraordinarily rare aircraft to the James Dolittle Museum at Nut Tree Airport, as the legendary aviator the museum celebrates had once flown this particular airframe during his time as chief pilot for Shell Oil.
Walt eventually obtained the aircraft from the Desmond’s trustees and got the Vega back in the air. Making some improvements to the airframe following the initial test flights, the aircraft is now performing well. However, given the home field’s limited runway length, Walt needed a southerly wind to land the aircraft to the south on the grass runway, avoiding the high-tension electricity cables adjacent to the northern runway. Unfortunately, the prevailing wind blew from a northerly direction during most of the event, but fortunately this changed late on the Saturday afternoon, which gave us the real treat of seeing this beautiful vintage aircraft up in the skies where it belonged!
A rare, airworthy Curtiss JN-4H Jenny also performed at the show. Originally built for the US Navy, this aircraft came with a 150hp Hispano-Suiza engine, giving the aircraft a significantly more sprightly flight envelope in comparison to the typical 90hp OX5 which most JN-4s came with. Frank Schelling restored this example over thirty some years, which culminated with the Jenny winning the Grand Champion Antique trophy at Oshkosh in 2004. Walt recently purchased the historic airframe from Schelling. I saw the Jenny fly a lot at various events in the ten years following its restoration, but it has been some time since I have had the opportunity to witness it in the air; it was great to see “Frank’s Jenny” flying again, this time in the capable hands of Andrew King.
American Eagle NC7157 was the first example I have ever seen fly. OX-5 powered, it is typical of the mid-20s designs which made use of surplus WWI engines. Interestingly, this aircraft had the same owner, Swann Allen, from 1936 until the 1990s! He started the aircraft’s restoration in 1968 and finished it in 1989! Following damage in 1993, NC7157 only recently took flight again!
The Buhl Pup (NC348Y) is an unusual design powered by a 3 cyliner Szekely engine, this is the latest addition to the collection at Ala Doble. Arriving this summer, the aircraft previously belonged to Ron Johnson at Poplar Grove; it regularly took part in Brodhead-based fly-ins.
Stearman C3B NC6438 appeared in the colours of its original operator, Varney Airlines, a forerunner to United Airlines. I think this is the second oldest United aircraft extant.
I felt extremely honored by the invitation to fly a 1929 Command-Aire 3C3 (NC583E)! This is the oldest aircraft I have ever flown solo, and the first powered by a water-cooled OX-5 V8 engine. An important powerplant, this was the first mass-produced aero engine in the US. Surplus OX-5s powered just about every aircraft designed in the USA during the twenties.
Many thanks to Nigel Hitchman for this report and the many beautiful images of stunning aircraft which attended this event. While this report is long overdue (many apologies Nigel!), it should provide readers with a great appreciation for the marvelous types one can see in the air at Ala Doble! [UPDATE: The 2023 report can be found here.]