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Laird Biplane
The Laird bi-plane owned by Walter Bowe.
(photo by Phil Weston)
Walter Bowe and Jim Rollinson
Walter Bowe (right) owner of and Jim Rollinson (left) the plane's previous owner, in front of Walter's newly restored 1936 Laird LC-RW300. (photo by Chris Hibben)
Laird 193
(photo by Chris Hibben)

By James Wynbrandt

"I want to go on a trip," Walter Bowe announced to his wife two weeks ago.

"My wife said, 'Take the Laird.'"

"The Laird" is the 1929 Laird Speedwing LC-R300, the last of 203 made. Bowe, of Schellville, California, purchased it from the Rollison family last year and finished restoring it this spring. "I haven't been to Oshkosh in 10 years," Bowe recalled thinking.

"So that weekend I learned how to land on asphalt again, Tuesday I hopped in the airplane, and 12-and-a-half hours later I was in Illinois.

"I used sectional [charts] the entire way," Bowe, owner of an industrial construction company, said. "I had a handheld GPS so I could hit the 'nearest [airport]' button, but I just purchased it," and couldn't use it effectively for navigation.

After visiting his brother in Illinois, Bowe flew NC-4442 here, where the historic aircraft is on display in the Vintage area's Row 58.

The Rollison family, well-known in the vintage-aircraft world, owned the Speedwing for more than 50 years; Bowe, 34, actually flew it when he was 18.

"I've had the opportunity to fly a lot of incredible airplanes, but this airplane kind of stuck with me," Bowe said.

Last September he convinced longtime friend Jimmy Rollison to sell him the aircraft, and set about completely restoring it.

He re-covered it, installed a vintage instrument panel and "new" tires and brakes, replaced soft aluminum pieces, and repainted the aircraft in its striking black-with-gold-trim livery.

Now it looks every bit the Thoroughbred of the Skies, as the Chicago planemaker dubbed it.

"A lot of people reference airplanes as female," Bowe noted. "[But] everyone says, 'Boy, this is a macho machine.' This airplane is meant to get up to altitude and go fast. [Designer Emil Matthew "Matty" Laird] wasn't worried who was behind him, only about what was in front."

Bowe's Laird is powered by a Pratt & Whitney 450-hp radial, rather than the 300-hp P&W standard on Speedwings. With its ground-adjustable, 108-inch Hamilton Standard propeller, it climbs more than 1,000 fpm and cruises at about 150 mph. At altitude with a constant speed prop, "I think it could easily get into the 170s," Bowe said, "but 150 in an open cockpit is fast enough."

With prices more than $15,000 the Speedwing was among the more expensive airplanes of its day; the stock market crash of '29 led to the company's demise. Unsold, this final Speedwing was packed away unassembled until 1940. Today it has but 120 hours of flight time on the airframe - total.

Bowe and his wife Carlene Mendieta, a noted aviator in her own right, own more than half-a-dozen vintage aircraft they fly from their own home strip; others include a Ryan STA, his-and-hers J-3 Cubs, Pietenpol Model A-4, Kreider-Reisner Challenger, Waco SRE, and Beech B-18 Bowe is restoring.

If this sounds like the stuff of dreams, Bowe says almost any interested pilot can "absolutely" get involved in vintage aircraft restoration and collection.

"There are so many opportunities out there," Bowe said, and expert restorers eager to share their knowledge and keep these historic aircraft flying "are available."

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