Rebirthing the Townsend Thunderbird

In September 2002 I purchased the home-built Townsend Thunderbird, a strange looking aircraft, assembled in 1955 from parts of at least four different planes. The fuselage structure (20' in length) appears to be a cut-down Fairchild PT-26 with its canopy. The cowling is from a Stearman, the landing gear from a Cessna 190 or 195. Its wings, vertical and horizontal stabs are from a Vultee BT-13 or -15. The wings are just the outer panels (wing span is 25') and the stabs have been cut down in size. Engine is a Wright R-975, which suggests BT-15.

    The aircraft started out fabric covered, but was later metalized. It's a strange bird with quite a history and, while it's a shame to change all that, it was not safe to fly. Actually, it was really great in the air. Take-off and landing is what scared me. It was too short-coupled and over-powered. I think it had an aft c/g or not enough horizontal stab. The tail would not come off the runway until about 65 mph with full forward stick.

    During flight-testing, I found that the clean power-off stall speed was about 80 mph. At the first flap setting, the power-off stall speed was between 85 and 90, with a very abrupt snap into a spin. Attempting to recover from the spin under 100 mph resulted in a secondary stall, again with a tight spin. I attributed that strange performance to the very small flap size—they ran from the fuselage outboard only 16". The size of the flaps created a thicker wing section at the root, and so caused the tips to stall long before the roots.

    I decided to disassemble the ship after the landing gear collapsed and made for a very exciting landing. When I removed the forward fuselage aluminum, I found some old cracks and some scary welding on the frame. A first impulse was to scrap the entire aircraft, but I then began thinking about redesigning it and building a replica of a WWII-era fixed-gear fighter. After extensive resarch, I found a plane that the Thunderbird most closely resembled, the Nakajima Ki-27. (— Tony Pileggi 10/6/03)