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10 Wooden Airplanes You Can Buy Or Build

And a few you’ll only be able to dream about.

Beech D-17 Staggerwing
Beech D-17 Staggerwing. Photo by Shutterstock

As we progress well into the second century of flight, most of us take to the sky in machines of metal or advanced composites like carbon fiber and Kevlar. The science is solid and techniques well established for flying machines of these materials. But if you step away from the mainstream types most commonly decorating the ramp at your local airfield, you may well stumble across wooden airplanes that survive as antiques, warbirds and homebuilt designs, as well as a few types built more recently. There are even a few designs in current production—one featured below is a throwback to the days of old, while another is a Light Sport Aircraft utilizing a wood wing to stay below the 1,320-pound gross weight limit. 

At the outset of aviation, wood was a logical material for aircraft construction. Lightweight alloys were still anything but common, but wood was widely available and used for everything from bridge timbers and railway coaches to furniture and buildings. Technically, some metal structures did take flight as rigid airship frames before the Wright brothers even started building gliders. But for the first several generations of aircraft, wood was a critical design component. From the early pioneers through the Golden Age air racers, wood allowed for strong structures with a smooth finish that didn’t require rivets disrupting the airflow. It could be used in a number of methods. The earliest flying machines were often a skeleton of wooden frames, with a fabric skin stretched over it. As machines gained speed and a need for strength, plywood skins formed over ribs, stringers and bulkheads made for a strong structure without a lot of weight. Even as aluminum became a popular building material for aircraft, wooden spars, such as on Piper Cubs until early 1946, persisted as a light and affordable component. Many of the lighter Cubs sport spars of spruce or fir. Wood spars continued in new-production Champs, Citabrias and Decathlons until the 1990s.

Even today, wood persists in plenty of homebuilt designs and even a few certified aircraft in current production. Wood is light, strong and, unlike metal, it doesn’t have a “memory.” It either breaks, or it doesn’t. Metal, on the other hand, can be observed failing as you bend a paperclip back and forth several times. With each bend, it deforms more easily, and when it finally does break, it does so with less force than originally needed to bend it. Wood is far from a perfect material, though. Termites aren’t so much a threat as rot—moisture is the enemy. Having a mechanic who is knowledgeable and comfortable with wood structures is key. Let’s take a quick look at 10 types, some old and some new, to see what a broad variety of wooden wonders might decorate an eclectic aviator’s logbook.

5. Bowers Fly Baby

5. Bowers Fly Baby

5. Bowers Fly Baby

In 1957, the Experimental Aircraft Association announced a contest for designers to enter easy-to-build, affordable aircraft. The rules were vague and took a while to firm up, but one of the qualifiers was that the designs had to feature folding wings—allowing owners to keep their airplanes at home, tucked into a barn, garage or shed. This contest truly embodied the “plane in every garage” notion that tantalized and eluded general aviation throughout the postwar years.

Peter Bowers entered his design, the Fly Baby 1-A, a wooden affair that used simple construction techniques, readily available components that came with every stock J-3 wasting away on tie downs (different times, remember) and, per the contest, the wings tucked away after about 15 minutes’ work. Bowers touted that the average person had the skills required to build his airplane. His prototype, N500F, bore the number of plans he hoped to sell.

Instead, it was closer to the number of Fly Babies that actually flew. He sold 10 times as many plans.

Several variations followed. A second wing could be constructed and added with some struts to form a biplane. A second cockpit was added here and there, and no lack of these machines took wing in military colors. An open-cockpit flying machine where you really could hear the wind through the wires—this really was the perfect plane for a generation of pilots to get airborne purely for fun.

Despite its sporty appearance, it really wasn’t aerobatic. Peter Bowers did loop and roll his prototype, famously so on the cover of a magazine, even. But a quarter of accidents involving the Fly Baby were structural failures of the wing. The Fly Baby’s unofficial homepage includes information about the PB-100, a revamp of the design to make it safer and easier to build. Using the original series published in Sport Aviation (and still available to EAA Members online) that served as a step-by-step guide of how to build a Fly Baby, the PB100 project gives enhanced instructions and even such conveniences as a CAD file that allows a metal shop to cut out all the metal pieces needed for construction. A motivated builder could have one airborne in a couple hundred hours of construction time.

Once flying, they really are a delightful diversion from life on the ground. Without radios or any real avionics, the Fly Baby draws your eyes out of the cockpit and forces you to smile. If you’ve got a little space to spare in your workshop, one of these would be easy enough to put together.

There are usually a couple projects for sale online for a few thousand dollars. It’s rare to see a flying one bring much more than $15,000, so they really can be an affordable way to get into the air. Worried there’s no second seat to take a friend flying? Rent a 172 when he or she actually shows up at the airport. Until then, it’s all you.

Bowers Fly Baby

Crew: One pilot

Wing Span: 28 ft

Length: 18 ft 10 in

Wing Area: 120 sq ft

Empty Weight: 605 lb

Maximum Takeoff Weight: 924 lb

Range: 300 mi at 8,000 ft

Rate Of Climb: 1,100 ft/min

Powerplant: 1 × Continental C-85, 85 hp

Maximum Speed: 104 kts

Cruise Speed: 96 kts

Stall Speed: 39 kts

Photo by Jeroen Konen via Wikimedia Commons


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