23-year garage project takes flight

By Michael Raffety


Aerospace engineer John McPherson recently got his hand-built airplane certified by the FAA. July 29 was the first time he landed it at the Placerville Airport to back it into the hangar that had previously housed his and Donna McPherson’s Cessna 182 since 1996.

The bright yellow-and-green wood-and-fabric airplane is based on a 1928 design by Bernard H. Pietenpol that was first published in Mechanics Illustrated in about 1930.

Pietenpol, of Cherry Grove, Minn., designed the Pietenpol Air Camper with a two-place open cockpit and a parasol wing. Designed to be built and flown by the “average America, it was to be powered by a four-cylinder Ford Model A engine.

McPherson is not your “average American.” The 1956 graduate of Jackson High School in Amador County went on to graduate from UC Berkeley, after which he entered Officer Training School with the Air Force, in 1962, having already been flying since 1958.

During his nearly six years in the Air Force he was stationed in Massachusetts and then assigned to the State Department as an advisor to the Thai Air Force at their flight-training center.

As a civilian McPherson spent 28 years at the McClellan depot as an aerospace engineer overseeing flight controls for the A-10 Thunderbolt, more commonly known as a “Warthog.”

Sometime between his McClellan career and the 17 years he worked at Placerville Hardware he began building his Pietenpol in the garage. That was 23 years ago. It wasn’t until he retired from Placerville Hardware that he started working on it full-time about three years ago.

He found some aspects of Pietenpol’s design a bit sketchy, and like most others who have built such planes found he had to make adjustments and tweak the design.

Being an aerospace engineer, he used what his artist wife Donna referred to as “higher math” to calculate factors such as the margin of safety, strength of material and anticipated loads.

“All builders have their own solutions for what problems” they might find, John said.

One of McPherson’s solutions was to skip the Model A engine and power his airplane with a regular four-cylinder 65 hp aviation engine. McPherson gave a nod to Model A by putting a vintage Ford hood ornament on his plane.

The pilot sits in the backseat where the instrument panel and 5-watt VHF radio are.

The instruments are basic and include a spirit level to indicate roll, a compass, an altimeter, air speed indicator, engine tachometer, oil temperature gauge, volt meter and amp meter. He puts on a cloth helmet with earphones connected to his radio. No goggles -– his glasses and windshield do the trick for him.

There is an 8-gallon fuel tank behind the engine and a 10-gallon auxiliary tank in the center of the wing. The fuel gauge in the main tank is a rod attached to a float; when it gets low it’s time to transfer some fuel. The red auxiliary transfer lever is above and in front of the pilot. The plane flies 65 mph and uses 4-4.5 gallons per hour.

McPherson filled out the paperwork for FAA certification last year, receiving his airworthiness certificate in November 2014. He had to prove that he built it himself, including construction photos in his application.

Then he had to fly it for 25 hours from Mather Airport. To get it there he detached the wing and hauled it down the Mather on a trailer. Before he did any test flying of his Pieternpol, though he went over to Auburn Airport and took 13 hours of flight instruction on flying and landing a tail-dragger airplane.

By April he had completed his taxi testing and at the end of July finished his 25 hours flying. He flew up to Placerville Airport four days before this interview Aug. 3.

Donna reminded him he needed to clean the owl poop off the airplane, which had been sitting in one of the big Mather hangars that was inhabited by two barn owls.

Also on his to-do list was an oil change.

Was Donna going to fly with him? Not yet. First he has to put a sand bag in the front seat to see how it handles with a passenger. Also, more solo practice before Donna takes to the air in the wood-and-fabric plane designed in 1928.

But after the hangar door was opened for photographs the airport grape vine drew in gawkers like aviator George Buttles, Ragtime Aero owner Rick Atkins, longtime aviator and artist Bob O’Hara and fellow flyer John Natalia.

It is classic design and entrancing for anyone who sees it.


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