Among the hulking bombers and attack aircraft on display at Lyon Air Museum sits a small, rather innocuous airplane. There is no bomb bay or mounted guns, and the two rockets hanging under each wing produce not explosions upon impact with a target, but billowing clouds of white smoke. In place of roaring radial power plants is a horizontally-opposed six-cylinder engine producing a little over 200 horsepower. Despite the diminutive stature of the aircraft and lack of offensive weaponry, this model of airplane played a pivotal role in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, where their effectiveness and the bravery of the men who flew them became legendary.
Lyon Air Museum president Mark Foster flying his restored Cessna O-1E.
The aircraft is a Cessna O-1 Birddog, which first flew combat missions in the Korean War, where it was designated the L-19. Designed for the Air Force, Army and Marine Corps primarily for observation, reconnaissance and ground artillery spotting (Forward Air Controller) duties, the airplane quickly proved itself in battle. Flying low and slow, the wily Birddog could spot, mark and flush out enemy positions for ground attack aircraft and provide precision guidance to artillery, much like a faithful dog aiding a hunter in search of prey. In 1962 it was re-designated as the O-1E and entered service in the Vietnam conflict. There it proved indispensable as the heavy jungle canopy of the terrain provided ideal cover for the enemy, making them almost impossible to spot by aircraft flying any higher than the treetops. The Birddog was also highly effective in locating downed American airmen, orbiting overhead while relaying vital information to inbound rescue crews. Despite the inherent danger of their missions, the men who flew these aircraft had only a sidearm, a rifle and perhaps a few hand grenades to defend themselves should they go down behind enemy lines.
The Birddog on display at Lyon Air Museum is owned by museum president Mark Foster, and this particular O-1 holds a very special place near and dear to his heart. Though now in pristine airworthy condition, when he first spotted this aircraft in 2003 it was nothing more than a pile of discombobulated parts laying on the ground.
For Mark, his admiration of the O-1 began many years prior. “I remember seeing a couple of Birddogs at the Miramar Air Show in the mid-1980s. The aircraft immediately appealed to me. They had control sticks like fighters, and everything from the throttle lever to the carburetor controls looked cool. Plus, it was a taildragger just like many of the classic World War I & II aircraft. That was really when the seed was planted that I wanted one of these airplanes.”
In the intervening years Mark earned his Private Pilot and A&P (Airframe and Powerplant) certification from the FAA and began a career at an aviation museum at Chino Airport (KCNO). Though he had seldom given thought to owning his own aircraft, the idea began to make sense in 2003 when his son began attending school near Bakersfield. Suddenly separated by hundreds of miles and a heavily congested Interstate 5, Mark reasoned that owning his own airplane would allow him the freedom to visit his son as often as he wanted, without spending countless hours in traffic.
“When I began looking for an airplane to buy I still remembered my admiration for the Birddog. In fact, I had flown several times beginning in 1995 and absolutely loved the experience. However, Birddogs are not cheap and going out and buying a classic aircraft in working order was just too cost-prohibitive for me at that time in my life. So I began looking for a Birddog in need of some work that I could buy for a bargain and restore in my spare time.”
Mark began his search, which stretched from southern California to places as far away as Australia. “Through my research I knew there were individual parts that would be difficult to find, so when I found them I noted the location and cost” Mark recalls. However, as fate would have it, the aircraft he was so desperately searching for was not a state or country away, but rather right under his nose at Chino Airport. “There was a gentleman restoring a Birddog literally a couple hundred of yards from my office at the airport. Wanting to buy and restore one myself, I would spend time with him learning all I could about the aircraft. In the back corner of the hangar sat another Birddog that had been in a substantial accident several years before. It was laying on the floor in pieces. Much of the sheet metal on the fuselage was crumpled and bent from the accident. He had been using it for spare parts for the other Birddog he was restoring.”
As time went on, Mark began to realize that the pile of parts sitting in the hangar could very well be exactly what he had been looking for. “I would walk over and mentally envision what it would take to restore the disassembled and incomplete Birddog with the available parts I already had knowledge of, and what else I would need. Everything slowly began to fall into place.”
Cockpit, rear observer compartment, empennage and wings of the O-1E before reassembly.
With some trepidation, Mark approached the gentleman about selling what was left of the aircraft. “He was open to selling, and the number he threw out to me was reasonable. I then went and began adding up costs, the largest being an engine, which this airplane did not have. The control surfaces and much of the fuselage would also need to be replaced, as well as one of the wing struts, which had been sheared in half in the accident. I also needed a prop and some other critical parts. Once I found the parts needed I crunched the numbers until it became financially feasible for me. I then went back and bought the airplane. I put it on a trailer and moved it to another hangar on November 22, 2003. I remember the exact day because it was the 40th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.”
With the purchase of the airplane also came the log books, which detailed a colorful history. “The airplane is a 1957 model which was sold by the United States to the French Army in 1959. It served with them for twenty years, until 1979. In fact, all the log book entries for those years are written in French. There were some minor incidents noted, such as ground loops which is not uncommon in a Birddog. However, I do not know exactly what the French Army used the aircraft for. I suppose with some serious or expensive research that information could be discovered.”
When the French retired the model in the late 1970s, a number of them were sold as surplus to buyers around the world. “Some were sold to collectors and enthusiasts here in the states, and several went to the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). At one point after arriving from France my Birddog was equipped with floats for amphibious capability. That is part of the versatility of a military aircraft, which are typically designed to operate in a wide variety of weather and adverse conditions. In fact, the Birddog can also be equipped with skis to operate in snow.”
Cockpit firewall before installation of instrument panel.
After spending a number of years with an owner in Georgia, the aircraft was sold to a pilot in northern California. After only about twenty hours of flying the new owner had a bad landing which caused the aircraft to skid off the runway and into a large boulder. “Thankfully the pilot and his wife were able to walk away from the accident with no injuries, however the aircraft was substantially damaged and no longer able to fly” Mark recalls. “That is the condition the airplane was in when I first saw it in 2003, minus the wings which had been detached for easier transportation and were laying next to the fuselage.”
For more than six years Mark spent every possible free moment restoring the Birddog. “I was working a full-time job, so most of the work was done at lunchtime, in the evenings and on weekends. Next to my bed at home was a stack of books, manuals and e-mails detailing every facet of the aircraft, available parts and the restoration process. Luckily, Chino Airport is an ideal environment for restoring aircraft not only because of the museum there, but also the large number of companies and individuals performing the same tasks on a variety of other aircraft. When I needed an extra hand for things such as riveting and painting there was usually somebody there to assist. Being an A&P, I was able to return the favor and help others out when they needed it. It truly is a unique community in that regard.”
Before installation of engine.
As with most complex restoration projects, everything did not always go as planned. Mark remembers “I had purchased two refurbished flaps that were sitting next to the Birddog, ready to be painted and installed. A guy was driving a cart by with two heavy landing gears from a North American O-47 when one of them slid off. It narrowly missed the fuselage but absolutely crushed one of the flaps I had bought. Luckily the man I bought it from had another so while losing the flap was a setback, it was thankfully only temporary.”
After painting and with new engine installed.
After more than six years of grueling work, Mark’s Birddog was ready for its first flight. On July 11, 2010 Mark took his restored aircraft to the skies for the first time, orbiting the field at Chino Airport for about 30 minutes before landing. Other than a few minor issues, the aircraft performed as designed. Once those issues were documented and corrected, the aircraft was complete and in perfect running order.
Ironically, by the time he finished restoring the Birddog, his son had not attended school in Bakersfield for a number of years. However, in the end that mattered little. Mark had long ceased seeing the airplane as merely a hobby or convenient mode of transportation. A relationship had developed between man and machine through countless hours of toil and sweat; a journey of painstaking labor, and love.
Mark flew his beloved Birddog from Chino to its new home, Lyon Air Museum at John Wayne Airport (KSNA) on a sunny Saturday, July 17, 2010. He fondly remembers the first call he made to the control tower for landing clearance as the moment it all came together; his dream had been realized. Like a proud parent bringing home a newborn for the first time, he safely tucked his restored treasure into the museum hangar that night. Mark fondly states “I have flown a Corsair, a Dauntless and Mustangs. Powerful, high-performance aircraft. However, to me, nothing compares to flying my Birddog.”
Cockpit after restoration.
Today, when not soaring through the skies the Birddog is proudly admired by museum guests as the little plane that did so much. Thanks to the gargantuan efforts of Mark Foster, and those like him with a passion for classic aircraft restoration, this Birddog will continue to stand as an everlasting tribute to the simplistic ingenuity of the aircraft, and the bold and courageous men who flew it into battle.
Article by Docent, Dan Heller