Andy Anderson's Bi-Wing
Story by Michael Shreeve
In 1930, the then-16 year old Louis "Andy" Anderson, a resident of Dow City, Iowa decided to build himself an aeroplane. Typical of many homebuilts of the period, this one is unusual in that it has not only survived, but remains in the care of the Anderson family almost 80 years later. Deciding on the configuration, he wanted to build a biplane, as "everybody knows that an airplane should have two wings."
Andy had access to a Henderson motorcycle engine of 29 horsepower, converted for use in an aircraft. The engine was a popular one amongst homebuilders of the period, a number of companies marketing versions converted for aircraft use (by removing the transmission, adding a propeller mount and a larger sump, and modifying the carburetor and exhaust). Built by the Excelsior Motor Mfg & Supply Company of Chicago (owned by Ignaz Schwinn, of Schwinn Bicycle fame), they were commonly used on the Heath Parasol design (Heath produced their own version, the Heath-Henderson), and also powered the first Maule design, the M-1 of 1931. A four-cylinder in-line configuration, the Henderson put out between 20 and 30 hp, depending on configuration. The Henderson engines were used for aviation purposes from the early-1920s, although Excelsior ceased manufacturing in 1931 due to the depression.
Requiring a propeller for his aircraft, he found one available mail-order in Texas, costing $5 (plus 25 cents shipping!). He spent the summer picking corn, earning himself 10 cents a bushel, to raise the money to buy it. The tailskid was made from a Model T Ford spring, with the foot off a woodburning stove welded onto the end of it. When the little aeroplane was completed (with the help of friends and neighbours), Andy was able to make several hops in it across a stream from his family's property onto a neighbouring one, and back again, when the wind was in the right direction.
One day, while tethered to the family's corn crib for engine runs, the aeroplane ran away from him, and hit the step of their horse-drawn buggy, breaking the prop. He then dismantled the little Bi-wing, and stored it at a friend's house. Years later, with the friend's parents having passed on and his friend wishing to clear the house, the dismantled aircraft was moved to a barn on the Andersons' property in 1950.
In the meantime, Andy had acquired his first real aircraft, an American Eagle. In 1954, he moved with his family to Missouri. Continuing to collect and restore old aeroplanes, running a cropspraying business and operating the local airport, aviation has remained in the blood of the Anderson family, who today have an airstrip and numerous workshops on their property near Kansas City. As well as aircraft, the family collected and restored old vehicles. The tail of the Bi-wing was hung on the wall, the rest of it was put into storage and forgotten about. As the Andersons were restoring old vehicles, they wood often pull out the old engine and put it on the scrap pile, and replace it with a refurbished unit. Over many years, the scrap pile in the corner of the workshop grew and grew, taking up space and leaking oil, until one day a few years ago Andy's grandson, Mark, decided to clear it up. At the bottom of the pile, encased in muck and liberally doused in oil from the other old engines heaped above it, he found the Henderson engine.
Mark set the engine up outside, and was cleaning it up when his grandfather visited one day and said "that's from my little biplane." At around the same time, a neighbour came over to visit, and said that he had at home an engine stand built especially for a Henderson engine converted for aircraft use, that he had bought the previous week at a farm sale for $1. Not really believing him, Mark asked him to bring it over, which the neighbour did. The engine fitted onto the stand perfectly! Another neighbour gave them a period propeller, which again fitted perfectly. Mark set up the engine and propeller on the stand, replaced the old corroded Bosch magneto with a Bendix one, set the timing, put some fuel in, and it started up on the second pull!
Running it on the stand did not seem too safe, so he mentioned to his grandfather that he'd like to build a fuselage to mount it on. Andy's reply was that the remains of his original 1930s Bi-wing were still stored on the property, so why didn't they rebuild that? They found the fuselage in the rafters, along with wheels, tailskid, struts, and the rotted remains of one wing. The wing remains yielded a good rib to use as a pattern, so Mark put his two sons (then aged just over 10) to work over the following winter building ribs. The fuselage and tail was finished about 12 years ago, and the Bi-wing was re-assembled for the first time in around 65 years, after having been worked on by 4 generations of the Anderson family. It is preserved in runnable condition, as Mark Anderson demonstrated on my recent visit there. The original, broken prop, which Andy picked corn to fund back in 1930, can still be seen on the wall of one of the workshops at his home strip.
Sadly, Andy passed away in February 2008, a few days short of his 94th birthday. However, in his lifetime he had been connected with the building or restoration of around 100 aeroplanes, and his legacy lives on, not only in the form of his first aeroplane, the 1930 Bi-wing, but also in the eclectic collection of antique aeroplanes and vehicles based at his strip in Bates City. These include a rare Curtiss OX-5 engined Brunner-Winkle Bird under restoration, and various Aeroncas, Pietenpols, Cubs, and the sole surviving Wallace Touroplane from 1929. Andy was an inductee of the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame.
My thanks go to the Anderson family for their hospitality whilst visiting them and for the 1930 and recent photos of Andy and his Bi-wing, to Eric Presten for arranging the visit, and to Harvey Cleveland for flying me to take pictures of the strip from the air.