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His first airplane was ‘pile of junk’ Wichita pilot finally sees success with first plane renovation

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, at 11:16 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, at 11:16 p.m.

A few years ago, Ben VanKampen’s hopes were dashed when the 1957 Piper Pacer he bought from a South Dakota owner turned out to be a “pile of junk.”

It was his first airplane.

Before buying, he had it inspected by a mechanic.

“I bought the airplane, thinking it was in good shape,” VanKampen said.

On the flight home, VanKampen experienced engine trouble.

The plane was leaking oil.

Its exhaust system fell off during flight.

VanKampen made it home safely.

He then set out to overhaul the 160 horsepower Lycoming engine, a nine-month venture he calls “frustrating and expensive.”

The news got worse.

At its next annual inspection, mechanic Bob Kenneson, also the manager at the Eureka airport at the time, scrutinized the plane.

“Your wings are shot,” Kenneson told him.

Every rib but one was broken. The wings were being held together by their fabric covering.

Rather than scrap it, he decided to rebuild and restore the four-seat, high-wing airplane, which features a steel tube fuselage and an aluminum frame wing, covered with fabric.

“I was chasing a dream,” VanKampen said.

The project took VanKampen and Kenneson nearly four years to complete and tens of thousands of dollars.

He spent every Saturday working on it.

Today, the majority of the pristine, head-turning burgundy and gray airplane is new inside and out.

This summer the plane took top honors in its class at AirVenture Oshkosh, one of the country’s largest air shows.

Judges gave it the bronze Lindy Award, named after Charles Lindbergh, in the “Outstanding Customized Contemporary” category.

Planes are judged on the quality of the work, according to AirVenture’s website.

VanKampen and his wife, Heather, had never attended the show, which this year attracted 508,000 attendees and 10,000 planes, including 2,500 show planes.

VanKampen, who flew the plane to Oshkosh, Wis., with his wife, hadn’t planned to enter the competition for the Lindy award.

But when he checked into the show, VanKampen was asked whether it was OK to have the airplane judged. He said yes.

VanKampen received the award at a ceremony at the end of the weeklong event.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

The renovation, completed in 2010, was his first.

The undertaking was huge.

From the spinner to the tailwheel, “every single piece on the airplane was taken apart,” VanKampen said.

At some point in its history, the plane had been converted from a PA-22 Tri-Pacer with a tricycle gear, to a tail-wheel configuration, like a Piper PA-20 Pacer.

The job was poorly done and had to be fixed.

Few parts on the taildragger could be salvaged.

VanKampen’s work on the plane was signed off by a mechanic with inspection authorization.

VanKampen grew up in Spearfish, S.D., and spent a lot of time at his grandfather’s house next to the local airport.

Before he could walk, his grandfather took him in a stroller to watch planes.

As a child, he hung out at the airport hoping to get rides.

“I was an airport bum,” VanKampen said.

He soloed a month after his 16th birthday.

VanKampen holds instrument and commercial ratings and has more than 500 hours of flight time.

He moved to Wichita to take a job at Boeing after graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

He now works as a contractor in the flight test department at Bombardier Learjet.

During the renovation process, VanKampen said he’s learned a lot of lessons.

For one, he would have taken a mechanic he trusted with him when he went to look at the airplane, one with knowledge in the model of aircraft.

It would have cost more but it would have saved trouble down the road, he said.

The plane came in handy during a strike in October by the Machinists union at Learjet.

On the strike’s first day, employees coming in to work waited hours in their cars along Tyler Road to get inside the gate.

VanKampen was one of them.

On the second day, he flew in, landed at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport and taxied over to the flight test building.

“That was so much fun,” he said.

With the restoration behind him, VanKampen is considering taking on a second project.

In September, he bought a Pitts Special model S1S, a single-seat light aerobatic biplane, after seeing an ad in Barnstormer magazine.

“It’s a pile of parts, basically” VanKampen said.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, he picked it up and drove it home in a U-Haul truck from Pennsylvania.

The parts are in his garage.

VanKampen is considering whether to restore it, build one from scratch or buy one already flying.

He may build one from scratch.

“I’m a perfectionist,” he said.

Still, he said, “It’s cheaper to buy one than to build one.”

The verdict is still out.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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