Open Cock­pit

Who knew that the de­signer of the PA-28 was born in the 19th cen­tury and a friend of Orville Wright?

Pilot - - CONTENTS -

Fred We­ick — who? From barn­stormer to PA-28 de­signer; a real pi­o­neer

Few peo­ple re­alise that the de­signer of the ubiq­ui­tous Piper PA-28 Chero­kee was a true pi­o­neer. Fred We­ick was a barn­stormer, who then got in­volved in ground-break­ing re­search into pro­pel­lers, wind tun­nel de­sign and low-drag en­gine cowl­ings, be­fore de­sign­ing an un-spinnable light air­craft, and fit­ting it with the first modern nose­wheel un­der­car­riage. He went on to de­velop the first pur­pose­built crop duster, be­fore be­ing in­vited by Piper to de­sign the most suc­cess­ful air­craft in its his­tory. He even helped to de­sign the fac­tory in which they were built!

Born in Illi­nois in 1899, his pas­sion for avi­a­tion was in­spired when he was twelve years old, when he saw air­craft built by pi­o­neer­ing Amer­i­can avi­a­tors such as the Wright brothers and Glenn Cur­tiss fly­ing at a nearby air­field. He stud­ied me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois and, in 1922, joined the fledg­ling US Air Mail Ser­vice. A year later, he joined the Yackey Air­craft Com­pany, al­legedly a bud­ding man­u­fac­turer but largely a barn­storm­ing op­er­a­tion, where he worked on ev­ery­thing from re­fu­elling and help­ing main­tain the aero­planes, to sell­ing rides to pas­sen­gers. Part of his pay­ment in­cluded fly­ing tu­ition and, like many of his con­tem­po­raries, Fred cut his teeth on the Cur­tiss JN-4D ‘Jenny’. His first solo flight came at the end of a barn­storm­ing tour, when the com­pany was left with one more air­craft than avail­able pi­lots. Fred was sim­ply told to take over the air­craft and follow an­other pi­lot home. Thus his first solo was also his first solo cross-coun­try!

Af­ter adding this prac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence to his grad­u­ate stud­ies, Fred then joined the Navy Bureau of Aero­nau­tics in Wash­ing­ton, DC, work­ing on pro­pel­ler re­search, His text­book on pro­pel­ler de­sign re­mains a lead­ing work in the field even to­day. He worked closely with the sci­en­tists of the Na­tional Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee for Aero­nau­tics (NACA), which he joined in 1925, help­ing to de­sign their wind tun­nel for test­ing full-scale pro­pel­lers, and he also ex­plored the interaction be­tween pro­pel­lers and the gen­er­ally un­cowled ra­dial air­craft en­gines of the pe­riod. This re­search cul­mi­nated in the ‘NACA cowl­ing’ which sur­rounded the en­gine, both re­duc­ing drag and en­hanc­ing cool­ing.

Among the first ap­pli­ca­tions of the new cowl­ing was the Travel Air Type-r ‘Mys­tery Ship’ of 1929. Pro­duced in Wi­chita, Kansas by a com­pany es­tab­lished by Clyde Cessna, Wal­ter Beech, and Lloyd Stear­man, the aim was to prove that a civil­ian air­craft could out-fly the mil­i­tary. We­ick watched with de­light as the air­craft made its de­but in the top air race of its day, the Thomp­son Tro­phy. It hand­somely beat both US Army and Navy fight­ers, even de­spite its pi­lot Doug Davis ac­ci­dently clip­ping a py­lon and hav­ing to fly a 360-de­gree turn on his way to vic­tory.

We­ick also ini­ti­ated re­search to re­duce ac­ci­dents caused by stalling and spin­ning. This led to his be­ing asked to cre­ate an all-new light air­craft in 1936 for the Engi­neer­ing and Re­search Cor­po­ra­tion, ERCO. The Er­coupe was de­signed to give re­duced el­e­va­tor ef­fi­ciency at high an­gles of at­tack to pre­vent stalling, and its con­trol yoke com­bined the rud­der and aileron con­trols. Two-seat, all-metal, and low-wing, pow­ered by a Con­ti­nen­tal flat-four en­gine, and fea­tur­ing a then-rev­o­lu­tion­ary steer­able nose­wheel un­der­car­riage, the Er­coupe was the first light air­craft to be cer­ti­fied as spin-proof. It is said that none has ever been lost in stall-spin ac­ci­dents. The de­sign still looks con­tem­po­rary to­day and about half of the 6,000 Er­coupes built are still fly­ing.

Dur­ing WWII We­ick worked with ERCO to de­velop ma­chine tools and riv­et­ing equip­ment, and then joined Texas A&M Univer­sity, where he be­gan work on cre­at­ing an air­craft pur­pose-de­signed for crop dust­ing, to be more ef­fi­cient and safer than pre­vi­ous con­ver­sions of aero­planes like the Piper Cub and Boe­ing Stear­man. This then led to his be­ing asked by Piper to cre­ate the PA-25 Pawnee.

While us­ing a low-mounted Super Cub wing, sim­i­lar tubu­lar fuse­lage con­struc­tion and power unit, his spe­cialised de­sign in­cor­po­rated a safety cage pro­tect­ing the pi­lot, while the en­gine mounts and lo­ca­tion were de­signed to al­low the en­gine to shear off be­low the air­craft in a crash. Such was the suc­cess of the Pawnee, both in terms of sales and in re­duc­ing agri­cul­tural pi­lot ca­su­al­ties, that in 1957 Piper asked We­ick to join the com­pany as its chief engi­neer.

Piper had al­ready de­signed a high­per­for­mance, all-metal sin­gle-en­gined air­craft in the PA-24 Co­manche, but it was ex­pen­sive to pro­duce and deemed by some to be de­mand­ing of its pi­lots. We­ick’s tar­get was to pro­duce a sim­pler light air­craft, which would be at­trac­tive and easy to fly yet cheaper to build than the fab­ric-cov­ered high-wing de­signs which then were the main­stay of the Piper fleet.

The orig­i­nal ‘Her­shey Bar’ par­al­lel chord wing of the early PA-28S was pro­duced us­ing iden­ti­cal wing ribs, sig­nif­i­cantly re­duc­ing tool­ing costs. We­ick also put his wartime in­dus­trial ex­pe­ri­ence to use, de­vel­op­ing cheaper and sim­pler riv­et­ing for the air­frame, and even helped de­sign the new Vero Beach fac­tory in Flor­ida where the air­craft was to be built.

The rest, as they say, is his­tory. The Chero­kee, named in the Piper tra­di­tion of Amer­i­can In­dian tribes, made its maiden flight in Jan­uary 1960, and since that date al­most 33,000 of the type have been built. Vari­ants have ranged from 140 to 300 horse­power, fixed and re­tractable gear, and four to six seats — and the story isn’t over yet, as the de­sign is set to re­main in pro­duc­tion for some time to come. Not bad for an air­craft cre­ated by a man who was a per­sonal friend of Orville Wright!

Fred We­ick cut his teeth on the Cur­tiss JN-4D ‘Jenny’

STEPHEN SLATER Stephen is CEO of the Light Air­craft As­so­ci­a­tion, Vice-chair of the Gen­eral Avi­a­tion Aware­ness Coun­cil, flies a Piper Cub and spent seven years help­ing re­store the ‘Big­gles Bi­plane’ 1914 BE2C replica

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