A Piper Vagabond finds it's way home.
No matter where it landed, a yellow Vagabond with "North Florida Motor Co." and "Lincoln Mercury Dealer" in bold blue lettering on the fuselage attracted quite a bit of attention this past year. Curious, I sought out the owner, Vaughn Lovley, to get some answers.
I found him visiting with some friends in the shade of the Vagabond's wing. He didn't appear the least bit surprised when, instead of asking typical restoration questions about the engine rebuild or paint process, I asked, "What's with the Lincoln Mercury lettering on the side of the plane?"
As Vaughn stood to properly greet me, he nodded in a way that told me he'd answered that question many times before. But before he could reply, I added, "And why is Lowell White's name on the plane instead of yours?"
Connected by history
Vaughn smiled as he answered. "That's what everyone asks," he explained. "People assume that I'm from Florida, or that I have some tie-in with North Florida Lincoln Mercury or Lowell White."
But that's not the case. Though Vaughn doesn't work for the motor company named on the plane and never met Lowell White, he's still inexorably connected to both the company and the man because he knows and willingly shares the little Vagabond's history.
It's a history of airshows, gypsy pilots and comedy flight routines, Vaughn told me, with excitement rising in his voice as we walked over to look at the airplane. And it's a story that started one day in 1948 when Lowell White decided to buy a Vagabond.
A man on a mission
Lowell White was a man on a mission when he walked on to the ramp of the Piper factory in Lock Haven back in the late 1940s. At 6 feet, 3 inches, White was a tall man—and was also an airshow pilot in search of a highly maneuverable, lightweight airplane for his act.
Instead of picking a new plane based on other factors, Lowell White picked this plane, Vaughn told me, "because of the half-dozen PA-15s Piper had ready for delivery, this Vagabond weighed the least!
White struck a deal and Vagabond NC4426H, serial number 212, took to the skies. With a stock 65 hp Lycoming and a ground-adjustable propeller, White and his Vagabond thrilled airshow audiences with a comedy flying routine which included spot landing on top of a car.
Soon, Vaughn continued, a dealership came along and sponsored White's act in exchange for logo rights on the side of the airplane. North Florida Lincoln Mercury also supplied White with a 1949 Mercury "Woody" station wagon on which he would attach his "Smallest Airport in the World"—the eight-by-11-foot platform White landed on during his act.
White traveled with airshow greats like the Cole Brothers and Billy Fisher around the Midwest and Southeast. Tragically, Fisher was killed during a show in April 1949. White witnessed the accident and soon thereafter retired from airshow flying. He sold the Vagabond.
It changed hands several times and was flown in Oregon until 1986 before suffering the fate of many airplanes: the Vagabond that once graced the skies and entertained airshow crowds sat, largely forgotten, for many years.
Fast-forward 15 years to an estate sale where Vaughn Lovley's father, Forrest, and some of his friends had their eye on a highly sought-after Hisso-Travel Air that was grouped to be sold with the Vagabond.
Its distinctive sponsorship lettering long painted over, little did anyone know that the gem of the sale would be the modest little Vagabond.
But as luck would have it, by the end of the bidding, Forrest Lovley and his friends owned the Travel Air and the Vagabond. Now, the Vagabond was traveling once again—this time on a truck bound for Forrest's hangar in rural Minnesota.
Just sitting there
The plane could have been assembled and flown; but upon searching through the Vagabond's logbooks and discovering the airplane's airshow history, Forrest Lovley realized the plane was worth restoring. So he and his friend Clifford Hatz started restoring the plane, but other projects took precedence.
Once again the Vagabond sat and waited.
Fast-forward again, this time to the fall of 2008. Vaughn Lovley, who grew up with airplanes but had never restored or owned his own, was living in Kansas City and working as a disc jockey.
"I was out flying with a friend, John Swander, in his Waco and told him I was thinking about getting my own airplane," Vaughn told me as I inspected the Vagabond's tail section. "John said, 'What about restoring that Vagabond your dad has, that's just been sitting there?'"
"I'd flown a Vagabond and it was a good flying airplane," Vaughn continued, and fueled by Swander's generous offer to assist him in the restoration (and use of his shop and tools), Vaughn contacted his father to see if he would be willing to part with the project.
"Dad said he would have to think about it," said Vaughn.
But he didn't have to think long. "Dad called back the next day and said, 'Yes, let's do it!'"
Vaughn's parents delivered the plane to Swander's shop on Vaughn's 30th birthday. With Swander's help, Vaughn picked up the restoration where his father had left off and made great progress in the following six months.
Then the economy turned; a job change and a move to Louisiana put the project on hold. About a year later Vaughn found work back in Kansas City and resumed the restoration. Unfortunately, he was laid off again... then was able to find work back in Minnesota.
A hot-rod Vagabond
In June 2012, Vaughn trucked the Vagabond to its new home at Le Sueur Municipal Airport (12Y) in Le Sueur, Minn. and soon the restoration was back in full swing.
Vaughn was quick to tell me he couldn't have done the restoration without the help of his friends and members of the Marginal Aviation chapter of the Antique Airplane Association.
In spite of its tongue-in-cheek name, there's nothing marginal about the skills or work done by the crew. Chuck Doyle offered Vaughn his paint booth and his help with the painting. Clifford Hatz worked on final fabric details. Tim Verhoeven was always around and ready to do machine work.
"Dad was Mr. Everything on the project," Vaughn told me as we walked back to look inside the cockpit. "He built the engine—a C90-12F [Continental] with a starter—to replace the stock 65 hp Lycoming," Vaughn remarked as I looked under the cowl, "as well as two 12-gallon wing tanks and 90 percent of the fuel system.
"It's now a bit of a hot-rod Vagabond," he said. "I can only imagine what Mr. White could have done with that [90 hp] engine under the cowl!"
To accommodate the larger engine, Vaughn's friend Chris Blazer scratch-built the cowling. Other non-stock additions include disc brakes and a full-swivel tailwheel.
"None of the work could have happened if not for the use of the perfect work hangar, thanks to Barb Frost and her family," Vaughn added as I ducked under the wing into the shade. "Then there's John Swander: he's the reason I got the project in the first place." Vaughn smiles as though he's reliving that flight when Swander suggested Vaughn buy the Vagabond.
Even with the modifications, Vaughn says, "Aesthetically, it still looks pretty original." Standing back to look over the plane, I agree.
An award winner
By the summer of 2013, the Vagabond was ready to take to the skies again. But Vaughn knew there was one more thing that needed to happen. Verifying details with Lowell White's son, Jim, who used to travel with his father on the airshow circuit, Vaughn had "North Florida Motor Co.," and below that, "Lincoln Mercury Dealer" hand-painted across the fuselage—just as it was back in White's airshow days.
And, in homage to the pilot who first owned NC4426H and thrilled airshow audiences across the country, "Lowell White" is lettered in the place where the pilot's name belongs.
Within weeks of the Vagabond's first flight on Aug. 11, 2013, Vaughn was readying the plane to fly to Blakesburg, Iowa, for the Antique Aircraft Association's annual fly-in. There, the Vagabond received a lot of attention for the beautiful restoration and won Neo-Classic 1946-1956 Grand Champion and the Iowa Chapter Choice Award.
Last summer found Vaughn and his Vagabond at EAA AirVenture, where the Vagabond again drew a crowd of admirers. The Vagabond was featured during a Vintage in Review session where Vaughn answered questions about the restoration and shared the Vagabond's and Lowell White's airshow glory days.
Vaughn's lovely yellow Vagabond also caught the attention of the EAA Vintage Aircraft Association judges, who awarded it the 2014 Outstanding Piper Other award in the Classic category.
Just a caretaker
The awards are nice, of course, and it's wonderful to hear all of the compliments on a restoration well done. And though he's proud of the work he put into the restoration, and quick to make sure you know that it took a team of his Marginal Aviation friends to get the Vagabond back in the sky, Vaughn Lovley is also quick to let you know that the plane is not really his.
"I'm just a caretaker," Vaughn told me as I was stepping back to admire the Vagabond against the setting sun. "It will always be Lowell White's Vagabond."
At first, I wanted to object, to tell Vaughn that of course it's his airplane now that he put in the hours of work to restore it to its former glory. But, then I imagined the little plane flying in airshows with Lowell White at the controls and thought, maybe he's right.
Even though Vaughn owns the little Vagabond, the plane's spirit will always belong to the early airshow days and to the man who first took it to the skies.
Myrna CG Mibus is a freelance writer as well as a pilot, artist, gardener and bicyclist. She specializes in writing about aviation, and her articles and essays have appeared in General Aviation News, Minnesota Flyer, Sport Aerobatics, and several other regional and national publications. She and her pilot husband, Owen, live on a residential airport near Webster, Minn. and fly a 1955 Piper Pacer. Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.