Made in tiny numbers by Piper and Aeronca standards, the beautifully-engineered Rearwin Skyranger proves to be a delight waiting to be discovered
“I’ve bought a Rearwin.”
“Oh… Er, Good!”
So went the conversation with my late friend and work colleague, Ashley Bourne in summer 2003. We’d shared a Cessna 140 and 120 for a few years, and I knew he was looking for a retirement project?but he’d floored me a bit with that purchase. I like to think I know a bit about aircraft and always look at the various photo reports from places like Oshkosh and Sun ’n Fun at the various esoteric attendees, but I wasn’t really sure what a Rearwin was.
Over the ensuing weeks and months Ash started filling in the gaps in my knowledge.
So, what had he bought? A 1940 (which counts as ‘pre-war’ to Americans, due of course to the USA not having then entered the fray) 75hp Continental-powered Skyranger, serial number 1522. Built in November of that year only three months after the type was certified, she is the second-oldest of the model flying in the world (coincidentally the oldest is the only other one in the UK).
After about three years of flying around the country and enjoying her, Ash took her out of the air and started a rebuild, greatly helped by his annual holiday in the USA, plus his job also taking him there regularly. These trips enabled him to meet fellow Rearwin enthusiasts, including Eric Rearwin, the founder’s grandson, and source many elusive parts. Family were often tasked to bring back as cabin baggage items such as propellers and windscreens!
Now she is 99.9% finished and resplendent in her original colours. Rearwins mostly came in red with blue trim but Ash didn’t particularly like their shade of red. He was overjoyed on stripping his down to find that it was originally the rarer blue with red trim. He even found under the floorboards a worker’s pencilled serial number.
Sadly, just prior to her second ‘first flight’ Ash fell ill and died. His family asked me and inspector Chris Morris to finish her off and get her flying. In addition to being an experienced pilot, Ash had been an aircraft engineer so the workmanship we found was superb.
Made for six-footers
Walking up to her she has ‘presence’, with a 34-foot span and quite a wide and deep fuselage due to Rae Rearwin being a six-footer and stipulating he wanted lots of head- and leg-room in his aircraft. Doors on either side, each with two sliding windows are opened by beautiful streamlined handles and latch on to the wing strut revealing a very ‘Art Deco’ interior. Two gracefully curved control columns topped with very tactile knobs dominate, but the tachometer really catches the eye! An original (and now very rare) Stewart-Warner Multigauge, it includes oil pressure and temperature gauges at the bottom.
Checking magnetos ‘off’ and fuel?via a massive chrome push/pull T-handle on the starboard side of the panel?‘on’, we can start a walkaround. V-struts from the semi-symmetrical wooden wing meet the rear of the faired coil spring undercarriage legs at the point where a handy step for cockpit access sits. The ten-Imperial-gallon wing tanks on each side have a drain point roughly level with the back of the door, and large Frise ailerons lead up to the aluminium wingtip bow. Passing the navigation light we come to a surprise; a nicely crafted aluminium slot set into the leading edge over three rib bays. This should help with aileron control at low speeds and alleviate any wing-drop at the stall. The port strut has a curious (to me) fifty pence-sized disc mounted on the pitot, just in front of the static vents. They were obviously looking for dead air for the static, so it is adjustable fore and aft. Just outboard of this is a retractable Grimes landing light set into the wing’s lower surface.
The aircraft normally has no generator, so the prospect of night flying with no internal lights and the external ones powered by a total loss battery seems a tad ambitious! Ash has retrofitted a modern wind-driven generator between the undercarriage legs, but I still don’t think I’d like to sample the experience! Fuel tank access for dipping can be reached by standing on the wheel if no spats are fitted. A venturi for the turn and slip in front of the left door leads us to the masterpiece that is the cowlings. Separated centrally, each half has a small lip that slots into a slot along the centre line. Undo a single Dzus fastener each side and the three over-centre clamps on the bottom, and both sides can be lifted away. It is a forty second exercise to expose the engine for inspection?modern designers take note please!
Within the cowlings, modern Scat hose has been replaced by flexible aluminium tube, and plastic tie wraps by old-fashioned strips of leather. The battery sits on the port side of the firewall although there is no starter motor. A beautiful 42-inch pitch wooden Sensenich prop fronts all this.
Working down the welded-steel, fabric-covered fuselage, we reach the similarly-constructed tailplane. There is a large trim tab on the starboard elevator but no sign of any mass or aerodynamic balancing on any of the surfaces. The tall fin has a decidedly small-looking rudder connected to a steerable tailwheel. Methinks crosswinds might be ‘sporting’.
Back to the cockpit, and the technique for entering seems to be different for everybody! Those familiar with Cubs will empathise. The aforementioned footrest coupled with convenient hand holds on the door frame should be sufficient, but if not, there are a couple of handy struts from the wing root down to the panel top. Contemporary adverts state, ‘Entry and exit are really easy, especially for women fliers’. Hmm. The bench seat is in fact a hammock arrangement with very comfortable cushions. Like the rudder pedals it is not adjustable, so extra cushions may be necessary for some to alter height and reach, but for this 5’10” pilot it’s just right.
Behind the seat back another hammock can take an astounding 100 lb of baggage. With this full, a lightweight pilot and full fuel is the only way you can get anywhere near the C of G aft limit. We’ve yet to finish the grey cloth headlining but it has neat little holes to view the Ford Model A-derived, wing root mounted fuel gauges. Still up in the roof, just aft of the windscreen is the elevator trim looking for all the world like an old fashioned car (not Ford again?) sunroof winder. It turns out to be very powerful. The metal panel is a little bit of a work-in-progress, as Ash had grand plans for how he wanted it, but sadly he’s taken them with him. It was originally ‘scumbled’ – the art of simulating wood grain with paint.
On the left cockpit wall is a circuit breaker panel for lights, generator and a radio (which is yet to be fitted). Above that are a gorgeous octagonal Bakelite primer and the mag switches. Right in front of the pilot sits that enormous Stewart-Warner instrument, (are RPM really that important?) with push/pull switches beneath for master, Grimes light and nav lights and a central vibration-proof panel with ASI, single handed, non-precision altimeter, turn-and-slip, compass and VSI. There is a gap where the ashtray used to be located, and on the right a large gap where the valve radio was placed. The plan was, I think, to put modern avionics in these spaces, hidden behind period faces. For now, it’s a convenient place to clip the handheld radio and couple it to the external aerial. Along the bottom is a pull and twist T-handle for the incredibly effective parking brake?the little drums will hold the aircraft at full power?mixture, throttle, carb and cabin heat. There are rudder pedals for both occupants, but only the pilot gets heel brakes.
Fires at the first blade
With your faithful swinger at the ready, chocks in place and after suitable priming, she fires at the first blade and settles into a very period sounding but vibration-free blatter. The exhausts have cones on the ends with open fronts and closed rears. Along the bottom are slots, and I’m told they make it quiet from the ground and indeed, certainly not intrusive inside during flight.
Taxying couldn’t be easier with the steerable tailwheel, and brake is only needed for tighter turns. The view over the nose for me means gentle weaving to clear the way. This probably wouldn’t be needed by those with longer bodies or sitting higher. Visibility to the sides is excellent as eye level is below the wings, but upwards you can see nothing unless you lean forward. Power checks are more by ear than visual, as the tacho needle dances away?but all is good.
The pre takeoff checks are straightforward with no fuel pump, no tank selection (as both feed equally all the time) no flaps, no DI and no prop pitch to worry about. The trim is very powerful, and today with two males and thirteen gallons of fuel there is a fair old weight on the tail, so I’ll adjust it a smidge forward. Takeoff holds no dramas as the little Continental accelerates our 1,350 lb maximum all-up weight steadily up to about 45mph where she really doesn’t want to stay earthbound any longer.
It takes about three seconds with the control column fully forward to lift the tail, and a light right foot to keep straight as it does so. The long fuselage giving the rudder a long lever arm seems to remove any twitchiness. Estimating ground roll at about 350 metres, we fly level for a moment or two, increasing to the best climb speed of sixty and then average about 400 feet per minute with just a tweak of up trim and the merest hint of right rudder to keep the ball centred.
Reaching cruise altitude, on lowering the nose it is a good view indeed straight ahead, as we accelerate to eighty and a cruise rpm of 2,350 with a reasonable amount of nose-down trim required on the ‘sun roof’ handle. It’s all very painless.
The fuel on board gives a shade under three hours with a thirty-minute reserve on top, so at our very respectable 80mph IAS (jealous Cub owners please note) and a rock steady, hands-free cruise, she turns out to be a lovely way of getting to your favoured stop-over or vintage fly-in. As ever there is always a trade off when looking at loading, and I think this eighty-year-old can hold her head up high. Me with full fuel (the best part of five hours endurance) 100 lb in the locker and thirty pounds on the seat next to me is pretty stunning. One male, one female, overnight kit and two-and-a-half hours fuel plus a reserve is the other end of the scale, and arguably the most likely scenario. Couple that with the sociable side-by-side seating so you can share your flask and sandwiches and I’m not sure we’ve advanced much in the decades since she first took wing?
Where she does show her age is in her handling. The ‘heavy aircraft feel’ (see box below) that the company deliberately designed in makes for a lovely stable platform for passenger comfort, but at the expense of heavy ailerons and heavy out-of-trim forces in pitch. Stability tests show all that axes display positive stability; releasing aileron in a sideslip she returns nice and steadily, releasing the rudder in the slip she snaps back into position like a soldier, thanks to that tall fin. Rolling into a turn without using rudder does actually produce a roll and yaw in the desired direction (unlike some of her contemporaries) but to do so neatly and in balance definitely requires footwork.
When the time comes to show your passenger their house, steep turns are a joy and she goes round on rails (those fuselage diagonals that helped you board are a lovely reference) but can be quite tiring in pitch if they want a long look!
Slow flight is exactly that – slow! We’ve experimented with the position of that static dam, and the ASI will happily go below the lowest indicated speed of 30mph. More believably, by checking against GPS in different directions I think 32 is the true minimum. With a one-knot-per-second deceleration those slots on the wing do their job and you can easily sit there, nose high with full aileron control, waiting for a break, and all you are doing is mushing down. With a bit of power, there is a break but no discernible wing drop. The effort required to achieve this makes me think it is not going to happen accidentally. When provoking the old girl in a nose-high turn, she is very ladylike and rolls wings level. I’m sure I can sense a disapproving look over the top of her pince-nez for mistreating her!
Rearwin advertisements in 1940 stated a ‘landing speed’ of 38mph. They were obviously trying to sell aircraft (note the ambitious ‘100mph cruise or 110mph maximum’ they also quote) and 38 is no doubt possible, but not what I’m intending today. With pre-landing checks done and carb heat selected to hot, a small reduction in power and a tweak of the sunroof, she’s hands off at 65 on base. I’m planning on sixty on final, reducing to 55 with a ‘last look’ of fifty. With unknown static and position errors on the first flight, I did this by feel as she really does talk to you.
On subsequent flights with static and position errors sorted, I did the same again confirming that indicated speeds matched my targets?and as it’s a benign day, I see no reason to change them. So gently closing the throttle as the ground approaches, a steadily increasing pull reduces the view of the Bedfordshire countryside to the white runway edge markings just to the left of the nose until I can hear the tailwheel trundling along (a lucky one!) amplified by the echo chamber of the fuselage (no headlining behind the baggage bay remember). The spring suspension is firm so you tend to feel every tussock as the speed reduces but there is no directional waywardness at all.
With very light braking, we turn off at the taxiway for the hangar which I measure as a shade over 250 metres from the hedge before the threshold. That’s not too shabby for a ‘normal’ landing and it shows what might be achievable using the 38mph the company quoted!
On subsequent flights I have tried up to about a twelve-knot crosswind with no drama so far. My worries about the amount of keel area and small rudder appear to have been unfounded. Ground handling has been exemplary. However, I have yet to try tarmac and the winds have been relatively smooth. The ailerons, though still effective, are not particularly pleasant in turbulence at lower speeds?but do you want to fly on turbulent days?
So, back to the question; what had Ash bought? A beautiful, rare piece of American history is the quick answer. An amazingly practical and comfortable light aircraft that draws admiring glances from everybody, and approving nods from the cognoscenti is the slightly longer one. With 75hp she is never going to be a sports car but at a shade under four gph she doesn’t have sports car bills either. Where the US government got their idea of ‘too difficult to fly’ I have no idea, as her foibles are no worse and certainly better than those of many of her contemporaries. One wonders if it was a political decision based on backhanders? No, that would never happen in politics of course! Had the decision gone the other way, we might have had 20,000 manufactured (like the eventual Cub figure) as opposed to the 82 pre-war and the 276 post-war Commonwealth-built examples. Who knows?
All I know is that Ash’s thirteen years of passion?verging on fanaticism?have left a magnificent legacy for future guardians.
Thank you mate.
From Ken-Royce to Skyranger
R A ‘Rae’ Rearwin was a successful businessman and timber merchant in Salina, Kansas. Always looking for new opportunities, he thought aircraft manufacturing was a good idea and in 1928 formed a company in his name and ‘borrowed’ a designer from Travel Air.
The first aircraft was a three-seat biplane named ‘Ken-Royce’ (after his two sons as it was thought the name might appeal to the upper end of the market) that proved very successful in racing but only seven were built as the Great Depression was beginning to bite. Next was a parasol winged fifty-horsepower, three-cylinder trainer; the ‘Junior’, to try and catch the rising interest in learning to fly. Twenty three of these were made, with several different engine makes, but reliability was main issue. Rearwin even opened a flying school with them advertising a ‘Solo course’ for $49.
This being the early 1930s, many companies were going bust, Rearwin finding his various engine suppliers amongst them. Sons Ken and Royce branched out a little by starting their own engine supply and overhauling company. Paying staff was an issue so, ever innovative, an apprenticeship scheme was started. These lads were steadily put through every department learning accounts through to engine building. They were promised a job (and money) at the end, and would wash aircraft and help on the flight line to earn pocket money.
The next ranges were all high-winged monoplanes, initially tandem seated but, as fashion changed, they became side by side, eleven Speedsters and 260 Sportsters (around fifty of which were exported) leading up to 124 Cloudsters. With the exception of some Speedsters, which had Menasco in-line engines, all of these had radials of various types.
Market forces again forced a change, this time to horizontally-opposed flat fours. Due to the still struggling economy and an attempt to grab a bit of the Civilian Pilot Training cake (which went mostly to Cubs, Taylorcraft, Interstate Cadets and the like) the next design was smaller and for a Continental 65hp. Rae tried to achieve a ‘heavy aircraft feel’ in a light aircraft and it seems the government didn’t like that and thought it was too difficult to fly.
This aircraft was called the 165 Ranger until the engine manufacturer Ranger objected. From the second one on they became 75hp and were called 175 Skyrangers, retailing at $2,295. Rapid engine development quickly led to an 80hp Continental version and a similarly powered Franklin model. This allowed a starter and generator to be fitted along with a 100lb increase to MAUW. Finally, just before the US entered the war, a ninety-horsepower version was built. This brought production of Rearwin-built Skyrangers to 82.
Through the war the company (and the Ken-Royce engine company) made numerous tools and parts for the government. The best contract was to build 100 Waco CG-3A and an unknown amount of CG-4A troop and assault gliders under licence.
Come peacetime and Rae was feeling his age and decided to retire. Knowing that there was going to be a glut of unwanted light aircraft plus some new designs from larger companies, it would seem to be a good time to get out. He sold everything to the Empire Ordnance Co (actually whilst the war was still on and the Rearwin company was showing very healthy figures) who restarted the Skyranger production line and sold 276 under the Commonwealth name. These were mostly of 85hp and had detail changes from the original.
Rearwin 175 Skyranger
Wing SPAN: 10.36m
Weights and loadings
EMPTY WT: 399kg
Fuel Capacity: 90 lit
Baggage capacity: 100 lb
75hp Continental A-65 driving a Sensenich fixed-pitch laminated wood propeller
Rearwin Aircraft and Engines Inc, Kansas and, from 1942, Empire Ordnance Co (Commonwealth Aircraft)
Image(s) provided by:
PHOTO: DARREN HARBAR