Back from the wild blue Swander
De Soto man returns from national tour in restored Depression-era airplane
John Swander knew this flight would be a once-in-a -lifetime opportunity. Last Wednesday, Swander returned home to De Soto from a 4,000-mile flight that took him and his plane across 26 cities in 17 days. Swander flew his restored 1932 WACO aircraft alongside other antique aircraft in the 2003 National Air Tour.
Swander called the journey something that antique aircraft enthusiasts would never have the opportunity to do again.
"The camaraderie among the other pilots who were involved in this was wonderful," Swander said. "The thing I'll remember most is bonding with other people who share a great appreciation for keeping these planes up and running."
The National Air Tours were first conceived in 1925 with the three-fold goal of demonstrating the reliability of air travel, encouraging the development of safe and reliable aircraft, and promoting the building of suitable airports and ground facilities. The tours became one of the most successful promotional efforts of the 20th century.
The tour flew annually until 1932, when the economic chaos of the Great Depression brought it to an abrupt end. Through the efforts of Greg Herrick (a Minnesota businessman) and the Aviation Foundation of America Inc., an effort to recreate the tour that never happened 70 years ago was set in motion last year.
"This project was a year-long process in order to make this tour a reality," Swander said. "(Herrick) made some truly incredible investments in order to pull this thing off."
The Tour gave people a chance to see more than two dozen vintage aircraft from the 1920s and 1930s. The tour featured bi-planes, monoplanes and flying boats, all harking back to the golden age of Aviation.
The tour went off as planned for the most part despite Hurricane Isabel looming on the shores of the East Coast. The planes started their journey in Michigan and headed south, stopping at nearby cities such as Kansas City along the way. As the group descended upon the South, they turned east and headed toward the coast, inevitably into the path of the hurricane that loomed just ahead of them. The intensity of the weather along the coast caused the group to forfeit a planned stop in historic Kitty Hawk, N.C. It would be the only trouble for the group during their historic flight.
"We were trying to land at airports that existed at the time of the original tour," Swander said.
"The hurricane made that impossible, but thanks to the live radar and weather reports we were getting over computer we were able to stay behind its path and out of trouble."
The trip included encounters with the offspring of some very historic figures in the field of aviation.
Pilots had the chance to mingle with the likes of grandchildren of Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford. Ford was not only a force in the automotive industry, but also a visionary in creating the original National Air Tour's in the 1920's. Lindbergh was he first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
"I don't think they realized the magnitude of interest that still existed in restoring these planes and keeping them in the air," Swander said. "This hobby can be expensive and there are so many other avenues of entertainment now that most people tend to overlook what we do."
In the basement of his De Soto home, Swander labored for more than a decade restoring his WACO aircraft to make it ready for flight. Since 1999, Swander has been using the weekends to escape to the plane's storage area in Gardner to fly it as much as possible.
He has captured several awards along the way from prestige aircraft organizations, and stepped up his involvement in the restoration of antique aircraft. He even hints at getting started on restoring another plane in the future.
"The great thing about what I and others do is that there is never any jealousy," Swander said. "We all work toward a common goal of wanting to keep these antique planes up and running rather than sitting around in a museum."