Nothing By Chance: The Return of Parks Biplane N499H

Sixty years after Richard Bach flew it across the United States, the rare Parks P2A N499H is under loving restoration to fly by Brad Donner in Texas

The Parks in 2018 when it was acquired from E. Glen Johnson by Brad Donner, pictured here at Northwest Regional Airport in Roanoke, TX. [Photo via Brad Donner]
Aircorps Art Dec 2019


By Zac Yates

“I only know that I want that biplane. I want it because I want to travel through time and I want to fly a difficult airplane and I want to feel the wind when I fly and I want people to look, to see, to know that glory still exists. I want to be part of something big and glorious.” – Richard Bach, Biplane (1966)

Richard Bach flying the Parks somewhere over the Midwest, 1968. [Photo copyright Russell Munson]

On April 26th, 1964 a radial-powered biplane with wings and tail in Champion Yellow and Stearman Vermillion-painted fuselage took off from an airfield near Lumberton, NC. At the controls was a 27-year-old former USAF fighter pilot determined to capture the spirit of the barnstormers and pioneer aviators, of the wind in the wires and the carefree “pick a field and land for the night” era. On May 2nd — after a journey with more than its fair share of trials and tribulations, and most nights spent in a sleeping bag under the wing — Richard Bach landed his Parks P2A N499H at Compton, CA, his mission accomplished and a new one about to begin.

Bach wrote about the adventure in Biplane (1966), which was followed by Nothing By Chance: A Gypsy Pilot’s Adventures in Modern America (1969 – adapted into a documentary film of the same name in 1975, narrated by Hugh Downs). This latter work chronicled Bach’s adventure with friends touring the U.S. as The Great American Flying Circus, flying several different aircraft (including the Parks) offering cheap airplane rides and performing mini-airshows for small-town crowds as modern-day barnstormers.

This air-to-air photograph of the Parks was published in the 1962 book The American Heritage History of Flight. [Photo via Zac Yates]

Our subject aircraft, s/n 101, was built in December 1929 and licensed as NC499H under Aircraft Type Certificate 276 the following January, its power provided by a Wright J-6-5 Whirlwind five-cylinder radial engine. While often referred to as a Parks P2A, this airframe was assembled by Detroit Aircraft from components produced by Parks College and marketed as a Ryan Speedster. In Biplane Bach refers to his aircraft as a “1929 Detroit-Ryan Speedster, model Parks P-2A” but for simplicity’s sake this machine is often referred to as simply “the Parks”. Between its registration and September 1939 — at which point the documentation stated the aircraft was prepared for storage — the Parks’ logbook recorded the carriage of 1,233 passengers to date, its front cockpit having room for two people. It made its way to Lumberton lawyer Evander Munn Britt Jr., who in 1964 traded it to Richard Bach for the latter’s recently-rebuilt, “modern” 1946 Fairchild F-24. Bach, who went on to achieve worldwide fame with his book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, parted ways with the Parks in December 1975 when he sold it to Wayne Amelang, who restored the aircraft with fine attention to detail and continued flying the aircraft for another 20 years.

The Parks pictured shortly after its restoration by Wayne Amelang in the late 1970s. [Photo via Brad Donner]
Forty years later, and after 14 years out of the air, the Parks was in need of some TLC. [Photo via Brad Donner]
“Like many pilots of my generation, I considered Biplane and Nothing By Chance to be canonical,” Texas pilot and vintage aircraft aficionado Brad Donner told Vintage Aviation News. “Before the Parks was completely disassembled for restoration, I enjoyed reading passages from some of these books while sitting in the aft cockpit. At that time, the disassembled Parks shared a hangar with the Bellanca and I could just about hear my Bellanca say ‘you never read bedtime stories to me!’.”
The writer’s own well-thumbed copies of Richard Bach’s two classic books “starring” Parks N499H, Biplane having been bought for him by his mother when he was a very impressionable age 10. [Photo by Zac Yates]
Sixty years after Bach’s epic cross-country flight, and as alluded to by Donner above, the Parks now is in the midst of a thorough and loving restoration with him at Spinks Airport (KFWS) in Fort Worth, TX. He has owned and flown the aforementioned 1946 Bellanca 14-13, NC86916 for eight years, a Piper Colt registered N5333 that he calls a “working girl” (as it serves as a time builder for some of the next generation of pilots in his family and circle of close friends), and another vintage airplane whose identity he is keeping under wraps for the time being. Donner told us aviation is in his blood.
A proud Brad Donner with the Parks in 2018: “100% complete, undamaged, properly stored and documented — a treasure.” [Photo via Brad Donner]
“My late mother was a stewardess, back when you could call them that, for Capital Airlines until she married my father. He was heavily involved in general aviation, so the aviation bug is genetic for me. My first ride in an antique airplane happened when I was about eight years old and one of our family friends had a Fairchild F-24R in which I was a frequent passenger. Interestingly, that F-24R – formerly NC77647 and later G-FANC – was exported to the UK but was destroyed in a hangar fire in 2003.”
Much like Richard Bach, the story of how Donner became the owner of N499H also involves yet another Fairchild 24: F-24W (converted to Ranger power) NC77605, which he recently sold to Cameron Grossl.
“While I still owned the Fairchild, the son of a previous owner – Scott Gupton – reached out to me to share the airplane’s history. He mentioned that his late father Charles Gupton, a ball turret gunner on a B-24, and Richard Bach had been friends during the time Bach owned the Parks and he sent a handful of photos of the Parks from that time period – some taken by him as a youngster from the right seat of the Fairchild. When he told me this story, I nearly fell out of my chair from deja vu! When I was a youngster, the Parks was owned by family friend E. Glen Johnson and was based at the same airport where I learned to fly. Although I had never ridden in the Parks, I had seen it fly many times and we all enjoyed watching Glen’s masterful operation of the airplane. I realized that reuniting the Parks and my Fairchild in my hangar would be a fine achievement and I reached out to Glen about the possibility of purchasing [the Parks]. It was a long dialogue, but in March 2018 I acquired the airplane. As time went on, my priorities changed and I sold the Fairchild, but I look forward to the two airplanes being reunited at an antique airplane event one day.”
The stripped fuselage of the Parks sits ready for inspection and refurbishment. [Photo via Brad Donner]
New struts had to be fabricated by Donner and his team. [Photo via Brad Donner]
“Fortunately, the airplane was 100% complete when I bought it. It was withdrawn from service due to problems with engine reliability and last flew in 1994. When Glen moved his collection of airplanes to a new airport, the Parks was disassembled and trailered to Northwest Regional Airport (52F) in Roanoke, TX which is where it was hangared when I acquired it. Glen described its appearance as ‘forlorn’ because the Grade A cotton fabric had split at some of the seams while the airplane had been stored. I described its appearance as ‘magnificent’ because it was not damaged and absolutely every part, manual, spare part, log book, and more was carefully stored and documented. It may not have been pretty, but it was indeed a treasure and in remarkably good overall condition.”
A scanned log page reveals some historically significant names… [Photo via Brad Donner]

When asked how many people are involved in the rebuild Donner replied: “Scores. No ground up restoration is a solo effort. There are welders, woodworkers, historians, authors, vendors, friends, family, and more. Without them, the project would be lost. As of this writing, the spotlight is on an amazing woodworker I found literally in my neighborhood. Without his skill and ambition – he’s fast and efficient – the airplane would still be low on my list of priorities. His success and skill are a source of pride and motivation for me and synergies like that are what keep the project on track.”

As of the time of writing the airplane has been completely disassembled and assessed for overall condition and viability, Donner said. “The steel fuselage frame, tail surfaces, and landing gear have been repaired as needed, media blasted, and primed. New wing struts have been fabricated. The wings and center section were evaluated and although they were in reasonably good condition, the glue joints and some old repairs were clearly showing their age, so I chose to replace all of the wood components in the airplane. I fabricated new ribs for the wings and center section and had all the internal parts inspected and fabricated replacements where warranted. I disassembled one top wing panel and one bottom wing panel so we could compare the existing ribs, spars, and other parts to the blueprints – other than the ailerons, they were found to be identical, so I had a full set of new spars constructed. The remaining two wing panels are still fully assembled and serve as a check and balance of ‘How does this all fit together in a completed component?’. As of today, the new center section is assembled and ready for varnish, new ailerons are complete through varnish and are ready for preparation for fabric, four new wing panels are ‘under construction’ and will be complete through varnish by the end of this summer.

“Completing the wing panels and mating new ailerons to new wings and new wings to an old fuselage with new struts bracing the whole affair. The partial remating of the airplane before fabric is known as ‘dry rigging’ and is an important step. Now that completion of the new wings is a foregone conclusion, dry rigging is the next hurdle and will be a milestone because – for a few days – all of the major components of the airplane will be mated and it will sit on its own gear while we conduct a preliminary rigging of the wings and fine tune things like gear geometry (problematic on this airplane) and a few other odds and ends before it all comes back apart and the focus shifts to the fuselage and tail group.”

 

Unlike some restorations of rare aircraft — there are thought to be only three or four survivors of the Parks biplane family — Donner’s project hasn’t suffered from insurmountable roadblocks. “From a technical point of view, there are no particularly large challenges,” he said. “The airplane is simple and I have been lucky to have started with a complete and undamaged airplane that included a set of blueprints.

The project arrived with a full range of blueprints, which has proven invaluable during the restoration. [Photo via Brad Donner]

“Logistically, the biggest challenge is time. Finding time to work on the things I can work on, finding skilled people who can work on components and also have time in their schedules to keep each component on track. The death of any large project happens when work stops for a long period of time.”

This project had its own encounter with that when Donner’s mother had a massive stroke in 2019 and a heart attack the following year. “When your mother ends up in that state, everything else is on the back burner. Before her passing earlier this year, I had to take a long look at my priorities and realized that the Parks needed to get back on track. Her last trip to my hangar was shortly before her stroke and we shared a pizza while she admired the Bellanca and looked at the newly acquired Parks with fabric falling off it and black sludge dripping from the engine and said ‘Oh Brad…’.”

Brad’s mother Doris Pauline Donner (February 16th 1934 – January 14th 2024) saw every old airplane her son “dragged home” and flew in several of them. We include this photo in memory of Doris at the request of the Donner family. [Photo via Brad Donner]

As for the color scheme, fans of the two Bach books will be pleased to hear the classic yellow and red paint job will be making a comeback, albeit with some alterations.

“The ‘Bach Years’ of the airplane’s history are clearly the most significant and identifiable periods of a nearly 100-year life, so it will wear those colors, perhaps with some minor variation for my personal tastes. But I would also like to incorporate some elements to document the Glen Johnson and Wayne Amelang years. Glen flew the airplane A LOT – he put considerably more hours on it than Bach did – and he was fastidious in his preservation of the airplane, so his ownership tenure needs recognition. Wayne Amelang was a true gentleman in the classic sense of the word and owned the airplane after the ‘Bach Years’ and lavished care on it while celebrating its heritage as a Parks College product. His widow and many members of his extended family are following the progress of the restoration and their passion for the airplane needs to be part of its story going forward.”

Aileron rib jigs were CNC routed using the blueprints and some of the existing ribs as templates. [Photo via Brad Donner]

Donner is quick to acknowledge those who have helped him in the project so far. “I’d like to thank my family, and especially my late mother, for inspiring and motivating me to engage in projects like this – they are not for the faint of heart. I’d like to thank Glen Johnson for putting up with my antics when I was a kid at Oak Grove Airport and remembering me when I – as a middle-aged man – asked him to sell me his airplane. I’d like to thank all the nice folks who gave timely advice or inspiration. And lastly, many thanks to the craftsmen and artisans who looked at this project and said ‘Yeah, this is cool and I have room in my schedule for you’.”

As for when N499H will take to the skies again, Donner jokes ‘It will fly on Tuesday’. “I have no idea when it will be finished, but the priority is to keep it moving forward and not stop until it is done.”

***

“Fast or slow, quiet or deafening, pulling contrails at forty thousand feet or whishing wheels through grasstops, in barest simplicity or most opulent luxury, they are all there, teaching and having taught. They are all a part of the pilot and he is a part of them. The chipped paint of a control console, the rudder pedals worn smooth through twenty years of turns, the control stick grips from which the little knurl diamonds have been rubbed away: these are the marks of a man upon his airplane. The marks of an airplane upon the man are seen only in his thought, and in the things he has learned and come to believe.” – Richard Bach, Biplane (1966)

Array

9 Comments

  1. There WAS some serious damage done after he got the plane from Evander Britt – he ground looped it on pavement in North Myrtle Beach and collapsed on gear strut, which had to be braced and welded before the trip could continue.

    • It’s a fascinating story but one I didn’t have time to get into in this article. But it’s great to find a fellow fan of the book who knows it so well!

    • The airplane was damaged in multiple landing mishaps during the Bach years, all discussed in “Biplane” and “Nothing By Chance”. The Wayne Amelang restoration corrected the hastily done “field repairs” from the Bach years. All repairs – hasty or otherwise – to the wood components have been “erased” with all new wood. The repairs to the gear have been revisited and are fine. There were a couple repairs to the fuselage frame that have been “erased” by new lower longerons and a some other new tubes.

  2. Can’t wait to see it flying and at OSH. Such an amazing plane deserves a great crow for it to be admired. Best wishes in the restoration.

  3. Like many aviation enthusiasts who treasured Richard Bachs books, I read and imagined myself in the cockpit. Years later through chance and good fortune I was introduced to an aerobatic pilot and a friend who took me up in their pitts special and later in his great lakes.

  4. I am originally from Tullahoma, Tennessee and I remember this airplane. I once propped it for Wayne Amelang at a fly in there. I have a picture of it that I shot in September of 1981. If you would like a copy of it please let me know.

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