The Versatile, Enduring and Ever-evolving L-bird

In rural South Texas one can expect to see wild fowl abuzz and limber legged sorts browsing afield. Vigilant of the San Antonio skyline in the near distance, on a certain nonwooded 30 aker plot, one is just as likely to encounter giant grasshoppers aloft.

The place is real, enchanted too, where its turf is storied with impressions. Tales of crosswind landings are accentuated in skidmarks. Other daring adventures of a benign sort scar its surface. The name of the plot is Cannon Field; it is home to Alamo Liaison Squadron.

Built on a mission the squadron, called “group” at conception, pronounced its purpose as twofold: Locate, purchase, restore and maintain in original flying condition a complete set of military liaison aircraft flown during World War II. Second, provide a facility for the permanent protection, display and operation of these storied aircraft. For now over 40 years the mission has stood.

What began in 1981, was Hardy Cannon and a team of collaborators formed the Alamo Liaison Group (ALG), expressly to begin collecting and restoring a particular type of warbird. The aircraft in quest were those constructed primarily of a tubular metal frame with wood supports and webbing, a selective use of aluminum, and an exterior cover of taught sealed fabric.

Whilst true warbirds, these aircraft were conceived as non-combatants, of civilian origins. Later when they saw service on the lines of battle they remained unarmed. Built purposely light in weight, the Army effectively deemed them disposable. They operated at low speeds and low altitudes, often directly over enemy lines. Expectations were that few would ever return.

Despite their fateful reckoning, many did survive. By 1982, ALG had completed the restoration of six such warbirds: a 1941 Stinson L-1, a 1941 Taylorcraft L-2, a 1942 Aeronca L-3B, a 1939 Piper L-4, a 1942 Stinson L-5, and a 1942 Interstate S-1B (L-6). These aircraft comprise the series of WWII liaison airplanes assigned military “L” designations and referred to collectively as L-birds.

A flight of L-birds in the Alamo Liaison Group, circa 1982.

Operating today under the name Alamo Liaison Squadron (ALS), a like-minded group of pilots, mechanics and nostalgists continues to fly and maintain L-birds. Comprising area residents, many of whom have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, squadron members through the years have followed their passion for “old airplanes.” ALS presently oversees a collection of aircraft including: L-2, L-3, L-4, L-5, and L-6 models, striving to keep them flying and serving Cannon’s original purpose.

At least one each of the series is owned by ALS, while others of varying make and model are owned by squadron members who base their aircraft at Cannon Field (53T), or nearby. All are flown by experienced veteran and volunteer pilots as the squadron performs flyovers and attends fly-ins to showcase their history. Cannon Field is the former residence and workshop of master mechanic and ALG mastermind Hardy Cannon who passed away in 1991.

Pilots and Grasshoppers

It was during the Second World War in 1942 that the U.S. Army Air Forces applied the term “liaison” to aircraft, so designating those intended for use chiefly in support of ground forces. The separate U.S. Air Force branch was still five years away from inception. Liaison aircraft were by definition small and lightweight, and carried a crew of two, perhaps three, including pilot. Initially, some were sorted under the army’s “observation” category (though later re-labeled liaison).

As early as 1941 liaison aircraft saw their first enlistments as the War Department sought contracts from “off-the-shelf” aircraft manufacturers including Taylor, Aeronca, Piper, Interstate, Rearwin and Stinson. By decree, liaison aircraft would operate from grass fields and improvised landing strips. Characteristic of this sort of flying, liaison aircraft became known as “puddle jumpers” and, more commonly, “grasshoppers.”

What did liaison aircraft and their pilots do? They served multiplicitous roles from the start, including: artillery observation, reconnaissance, aerial photography, medical evacuation, search and rescue, primary flight training, pilot proficiency, and transport of supplies, personnel and mail. Their pilots were regarded as daring and heroic, often asked to fly well within range of enemy guns. Further, it is told that the liaison pilot of WWII, while performing their official roles, additionally fulfilled many others that “just needed done.”

Despite the utilitarian profile of the L-bird mission, the liaison pilot under Army Ground Forces command was mostly overshadowed, often disparaged, by pilots under the presumed higher-value Army Air Forces command flying transport, fighter and bomber aircraft. It was the infantry and artillery units under which liaison pilots served who understood their real worth. WWII liaison pilots supplied troops with food, goods and ammunition. They located stranded soldiers and evacuated the wounded.

Liaison pilots held the ranks of enlisted men, and sometimes commissioned officers—these being pilots of the Army Air Force who happened to fly liaison aircraft and missions. Remarkably, the majority of liaison pilots were ordinary soldiers simply trained to operate their unassuming small airplanes. Though often exposed to dangers, and performing invaluable feats to assist advancing ground forces, liaison pilots did not enjoy the same benefits of rank awarded most pilots. Army Air Force pilots slept in beds in relative safety, while liaison pilots slept on the front line in tents with their troops.

That the feats of lesser decorated, albeit brave pilots not be forgotten, ALS rounds out its mission with a third directive: to preserve the stories, and their telling, of the liaison pilots.

Fleet and Maintenance

From the start ALS has been a self-supportive, privately financed, all volunteer organization. Members are dedicated to building, restoring, maintaining, demonstrating and flying liaison aircraft. Individual memberships support and promote the continued operations of the L-bird flying museum, so recognized by the Texas Historic Commission.

As ALS members play play an active role in flying the L-bird collection, they also perform the necessary work to keep them flying. Over the years, numerous aircraft have been brought back to life at the hands of ALS members. Though liaison aircraft were selected and built for simplicity, their method of construction is distinctly a learned skill. Artisans of experience and talent, such as Hardy Cannon, were a vanishing breed postwar as “all-metal” airplanes were being built in earnest. ALG in its founding was one of the progenitors of a popular rebirth of “tube-and-fabric” aircraft that persists today. Liaison-type aircraft, old and new, are now highly sought after as reconstruction projects and nostalgic flivvers. They are desired by aviators of all ages and in particular by backcountry adventure seekers.

Click here to see representatives, past and present, of the ALS fleet.

Events and Flyovers

The aircraft of Alamo Liaison Squadron are operated by veteran pilots practiced in the art of tailwheel flying. During the year, squadron pilots perform flyovers at area events such as the Poteet Strawberry Festival and various Veterans Day celebrations. An annual Cannon field fly-in takes place and typically includes both flying and static aircraft displays, a Candy Bomber Drop (reenactment of the exploits of famed USAF pilot Gail Halvorsen a.k.a. “Uncle Wiggly Wings”), flour bombing contest, missing man formation flyby/tribute, and medevac demonstration.

While U.S. airbases once welcomed the public, today the amount of preparation and pre-clearance makes flying into these events scarce. However, in the past ALS participated often in military exhibitions in San Antonio, a.k.a. Military City USA. “Most of the collection joined Armed Forces Week aircraft displays at Randolph Air Force Base recently,” said an excerpt from local newspaper Express-News in 1982. ALG members flew the planes there at their own expense. A similar sortie took place as recently as 2009.

The L-5 aft deck opened for visitors to see the stretcher configuration and appreciate the rugged simplicity. Randolph AFB Airshow 2009.
The ALS L-birds on the ramp at Randolph AFB. A foggy morning is reminiscent of the days when duty called.

On November 14, 2014, ALS performed a fly-by routine during the “Salute to Veterans” celebration taking place at Fort Sam Houston’s MacArthur Parade Field. The flight of four L-birds included vintage Piper L-4 and Taylorcraft L-2 aircraft along with two contemporary Legend Cub liaison replicas. The event was hosted by U.S. Army North–Fifth Army. A similar flyover took place on July 5, 2017, in celebration of Independence Day.

A flight of four L-birds from ALS approach Ft. Sam parade field in diamond formation. Photo taken from the trailing L-bird.
Aircraft of Flight B pass in review with elements of the 2d Division at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, April 1942. Photo from Eyes of the Artillery. Under a newly proposed air-observation-post concept, the aircraft were based at Ft. Sam during service tests and performed at nearby Leon Springs Military Reservation (presently Camp Stanley and Camp Bullis). Successful testing led to their observation and reconnaissance roles in WWII.

Box Seat Over Hell

Following his WWII service, and later the founding of ALG, Hardy D. Cannon wrote and published Box Seat Over Hell: The True Story of America’s Liaison Pilots and Their Light Planes in World War Two. Written for and about those who flew, Cannon recounted stories of courage and man’s romance with the sky. With the author’s artistry and imagination in restoration similarly put to work in writing, Box Seat Over Hell portrays the toll inflicted on the souls of those who flew the inexorable liaison aircraft.

Excerpts:

The first liaison group formed was the 25th Liaison Squadron, comprised of thirty-two airplanes, enough sergeants to fly them, fifteen officers, one hundred enlisted men to maintain the planes, and assorted necessary pieces of equipment. The only thing the 25th lacked was a description of its mission. They were not [yet] artillery spotters and they were not supposed to be aerial ambulances… they were simply “liaison,” a catch-all word in the Army that can mean anything.

Grasshopper pilots not only handled some of the most difficult missions of the war, they also handled some of the most treacherous and hair raising. They flew in every theatre: from the desert when, in the super heated air, it was a real struggle to get airborne; in the arctic, where they fought to stay on course through williwaws and boreal storms, and where if they got lost they were almost guaranteed a frigid death. They flew over jungles with aircraft so overloaded they barely maintained altitude, with engines screaming, to clear the tree tops. These pilots were not the “glory boys” of the Air Corps. They were never given the recognition or the medals of the bomber pilots.

Regards to Mrs. Sarah Cannon (deceased in 1993) for granting ALS the rights to Box Seat Over Hell.

Hardy Cannon was a gunner on a B-17 then, following an injury sustained on a combat mission, served in maintenance on numerous types of airplanes. Afterwards he came to San Antonio, married, taught school, and at one time was part owner of the largest postwar civilian flight school. A dedication plaque on a tall observation platform at Cannon Field records it was erected from 1991–1992 in his memory.

It took, “Canvas and wood and courage,” said ALS lifetime member, Bob Salter. “Small light and slow as they are, these planes are still a roaring connection with our greatest generation. Their almost insurmountable challenges. Their selfless sacrifices.” He continued, “The book’s title says it all. There is no small amount of awe imagining those days in riding tandem with the past.”

L-Bird, The Little Plane That Did

Further chronicling stories of L-birds and the roles they played in WWII is a movie short available on DVD titled L-Bird: The Little Plane That Did. Narrated by Cliff Robertson and produced by Emmy award winning director Brian Shipman, the compilation includes rare footage of the Brodie landing system by which L-birds landed at sea aboard carrier ships.

L-Bird, The Little Plane That Did by Brian Shipman, available only on DVD.

It’s hard to believe such a small airplane could cause so much chaos, death and destruction. But it did. It’s even harder to understand how such a remarkable story could go untold for half a century. At the start of WWII, many officers thought the little planes were a joke. But before the war was half over, field officers wouldn’t go anywhere without them. Using L-birds as spotters, the U.S. Army was able to place its artillery with pinpoint accuracy. Anything that moved under the watchful eye of an L-bird pilot was immediately blown away.

History on the Wing in San Antonio

A longtime duo of San Antonio TV news personalities revealed the little known group’s activities in recent years. Excerpts from their interviews follow with the story initiated by the forenamed Bob Salter, a reporter, air medical helicopter pilot, and former TV anchorman.

“This is history on the wing,” Salter began. “It looks like it’s barely moving. Isn’t that incredible,” queried an onlooker. “These airplanes are designed to fly very slowly, to land at very slow speed, and to take off at very slow speed,” responded Gene Jensen, ALS squadron leader.

“So it did not require a runway?” queried Salter. “No, just any patch of road, no matter how rough. Or an open field, a section of beach close to the water,” Jensen followed. “These airplanes were used for virtually anything you’d use a Jeep for. Their first military assignment was to direct artillery fire. With an eye in the sky and a radio, they could direct fire on the ground. For the first time, artillery became really effective.

“This is a true Piper Cub, a 1939 model. It was so universally safe to fly, almost anybody could fly it with the simplest of introductions. Many of them were delivered in a crate to the military with an instruction book to put them together, usually by a couple of young soldiers with some experience in motorcycle maintenance. And of course it usually meant he was a little bit daring,” Jensen invoked. “It’s very simple, as far as airplanes go. Very easy to repair. Being made of fabric over a frame, if they got damaged whether it was battle damage or just mistakes, one could repair it very very simply.

“Over 10,000 of them were built during World War II. They didn’t even send a 100-hour inspection list with them, because they never expected them to last a 100 flying hours.” Salter bantered, “But here it is nearly 80 years later still flying. This is in no small part due to the dedication of volunteers, whose passion it is to wrench time backwards.”

“So how is it these L-birds are not combat planes, but combat so often found them?” asked Salter. “The ambulance version, whereon the whole side folds down and the back door opens, allows for a stretcher behind the pilot. It was the very first air extraction ambulance. This allowed them to quickly get an injured, a seriously injured soldier, back to the M.A.S.H. hospital,” Jensen answered.

Bob Salter visits Cannon Field (segment begins at 5:03).

Months after Salter’s visit in 2015, he passed away in his sleep at the age of 61. In September 2016, Katrina Webber, a reporter for San Antonio’s KSAT 12 where Salter spent most of his career, visited Cannon Field for more. Her interview was titled Life Along the Loop: Group’s pastime involves flying high, elevating history – Alamo Liaison Squadron shares history of WWII combat planes.

“When it comes to firsthand memories of WWII, Gene Jensen can muster only fuzzy images. He was still a young child when the United States and its allies declared victory,” led Webber. Jensen replied, “My first and only memories are the soldiers coming home at the end of the war.”

Despite the generation shift, Jensen has made it his mission to ensure others know all about that era, as well as some of the aircraft that made significant contributions toward that victory. A Korean War veteran and former B-52 bombardier Jensen, and other ALS members share their knowledge of WWII with the use of restored L-birds.

“What we’re trying to do is preserve the story. This is the story about the little bitty guy that really never got told,” Jensen said. “These planes did the simple tasks, looking over the hills, directing artillery fire, dropping supplies.” Restorations at ALS come as close to the original as possible. Patchworks of paint, stars and bars, and other markings that dressed them years ago are visible today. Even a simulated bullet hole decal gives reference to the L-bird’s past.

“The sacrifices service members made in the past can be used as a guide in the present and future. If one understands the history here and how diligently these people served, in rather really simple ways,” Jensen advocated, “then service, even sacrifice, is a positive human experience.”

DeRidder Louisiana Vintage Flight

In November 2016, a reporter for KPLC TV in Louisiana, Maranda Whittington, met with Jensen representing ALS. Sharply defiant in his best recollection and silvered age, Jensen assured, “I don’t remember not wanting to fly.” The story, titled WWII plane flies into DeRidder Saturday, alludes to the five hours Jensen spent flying from San Antonio to DeRidder, for a special reason. “This is the historical starting point for these airplanes,” he professed. “Such planes were used during the Louisiana Maneuvers here in the 1940s. It was their proving ground before being shipped overseas by the thousands. Flying this plane reminds me that some qualities are best never forgotten.”

Reflecting on Four Decades

San Antonio Express-News printed in 1982, “Checking the gas is simple on this spotter plane. The gauge is a wire attached to a cork.” The floating wire is clearly visible from both inside or outside the cockpit. Liaison is conceivably a misleading term to describe what the what the light two-place airplanes actually did in their wartime service. Their contribution was in their versatility. “Low and slow, that’s how they flew in directing artillery fire or spotting enemy troops and tanks. They could land on any road, in any field. One landed on a fishing pier in Manila and took off again later from the same pier,” the newspaper article exclaimed.

Photo from San Antonio Express-News, Friday, May 28, 1982. Piper J3 in the foreground, Taylorcraft L-2 behind.

The first specialized liaison airplane, the Stinson L-5, is represented at ALG. Before helicopters revolutionized battlefield casualty removal, a medevac configured L-5 allowing a litter onboard served in this capacity. The newspaper article further recorded, “The group’s rarest acquisition was a tangle of tubing, wires and rotted canvas, the L-1 [also manufactured by Stinson]. The largest of the liaisons used, it was one of four known to exist, found in the Alaskan wilderness.”

Opening the hatch of the L-5 reveals ample space for the transport of a wounded soldier.

A newsletter of the San Antonio Real Estate Association noted two years later as ALG acquired additional property at Cannon Field for a runway expansion, “The group of area businessmen, bankers and retired military personnel… maintains the only complete set of flying WWII liaison aircrafts which were built between 1939 and 1945.” In 1984, this included the rare and then flying L-1 Vigilant. ALG at the time had formed a more complete set of L-birds than that maintained by the Army Aviation and Air Force Museums. The organization was 50 strong, and the non-pilot members (half or so in number) were flight training in the 40-year-old planes they restored.

The first restored L-1 at Cannon Field, circa 1984.

Little Airplane, Big Job

AOPA Pilot writer Barry Schiff, along with photographer Mike Fizer, paid a visit and flew the squadron’s aircraft during the ALS annual picnic in April 2015. The upshot was an article, “Little airplane, big job – The Poor Man’s Warbird” published in the July 2015 edition of the magazine. Schiff wrote: “A group of pilots dedicated to honoring and keeping alive the memory of the L-birds and their pilots… is unabashedly patriotic.” Emphasizing further, “A claim that small tube-and-fabric liaison airplanes were the most feared American aircraft of WWII seems incredulous, almost laughable. But those aware of the facts argue persuasively that the claim is true.”

American Innovation

The introduction of a new category of aircraft prompted challenges for the military. Through innovation, American liaison squadrons were able to overcome their challenges. Liaison aircraft were comparatively slow and short range aircraft. Flying them across the English Channel, for example, required advance planning and for some supplemental fuel. Operations in the Pacific required considerably more preparedness. Hence, the the aforementioned Brodie landing system was conceived. Born of the Landing Ship, Tank (LST) naval vessel first developed during WWII to facilitate direct-to-shore tank landing operations, a converted LST was used with L-birds.

These ships were in size (length ≈300 ft x beam 50 ft) large enough for an L-bird to land and takeoff from, however impractical given the entire deck would be required. A launch platform was constructed easily enough in the available deck space, but landing would be difficult at best. The experimental, and appreciably successful, Brodie landing system was developed to “retrieve” a slow flying plane by wire on cranes hung laterally abreast the ship then lower them onto the LST deck.

The Brodie landing system on a converted Navy LST.
The deck of a converted Navy LST served as a departure runway for L-birds.

Other liaison centric innovations, the stuff of legend, also emerged from WWII. Charles Carpenter, brazenly dubbed “Bazooka Charlie,” was an Army Major assigned to the 1st Bombardment Division in France. He created an ad hoc gunship of his L-4 by mounting M1 Bazookas under its wings. According to postwar lore, he used them successfully to take out a tank.

Charlie Carpenter with his grasshopper turned gunship.

In today’s backcountry-centric flying world, the hanging of gun cases, fishing poles, and even bicycles under the wings can been seen giving nod to the creativity and innovation of Bazooka Charlie.

Flight test with a gun carrier under the wings of a Legend Cub, 2016.
A practical application for the modern flyer, a wing mounted gun carrier leaves more room for storage in the cargo hold.

Like the larger cabined L-5, an ambulance configuration of the Piper Cub was also built. It was able to accommodate a stretcher with a convertible “turtledeck” aft fuselage. Designated HE-1, then later AE-1, 100 examples were delivered to both the Navy and Marines for use at remote air stations beginning in 1942.

Navy AE-1 Air Ambulance, based on the Piper J-5C.

The AE-1 was derived from the Piper J-5C, a rare Cub built with a wider two-passenger rear seat and pilot in front. This slightly bigger passenger compartment, with seat removed, gave the AE-1 the ability to carry, theoretically, two stretchers (see photo). The AE-1 had a 75-hp engine, compared the 65-hp in the kindred J-3 and L-4 models.

Cut-away drawing of a U.S. Navy Piper HE-1 showing utilization of the space behind the pilot seat accommodating two litter patients.

A vital medevac service employed by all L-birds involved the dropping of supplies, medical or otherwise, via parachute as illustrated in a period Piper Cub ad. Delivery of supplies via parachute was common in military aviation and the L-birds were no exception.

Piper Cub print ad, Flying magazine – Medical Mission!

Conversely, the light and low flying L-birds could retrieve terrestrial items in a decidedly low-tech but effective manner. Another Piper Cub ad illustrates the airplane swooping down with a fish hook to retrieve a message and “speed it to headquarters.”

Piper Cub print ad – Message on the Fly!

STOL is What It’s All About

A pair of L-bird replicas, 2006 and 2008 Legend Cubs, that have flown with ALS are but a sampling of what liaison-type aircraft look like today. Some copies are known as Carbon, Savage and Patrol, some as Bush, Boss and Bear, others as Super, Patriot and even the Mother-of-all-Cubs. Each is still a Cub of the liaison-type in its unique form. Such imitations of the low, slow flying L-birds are ubiquitous and laudatory, and a testament to the Cub’s merit. When the military desired a short take off and landing aircraft, they got one that proved its worth.

Among the things changed with contemporary copies… tires got fatter, HP made ’em go faster. Digital avionics facilitated navigation, communications and systems monitoring. The list of betterments is long. However, the essence is the same. Flying into a makeshift landing zone. Experiencing the unknown. All it takes is a heroic pilot and a field-wise mechanic. The rest is history in the making, where anything is possible owing to the enduring L-bird.

Still Flying Here, 80+ Years

Summarizing the golden anniversary of L-birds, H.G. Frautschy, long time editor of Vintage Airplane magazine, penned in the June 1992 edition of Sport Aviation magazine, “The idea had not come to Bill Piper in a sudden inspiration… [army officers, mid 1940] had been experimenting with a civilian Piper Cub they had rented from Stinson Municipal Airport in San Antonio, TX.” Over 80 years later, the liaisons, the grasshoppers, the Cubs and Flying Jeeps are still doing just that—flying at Cannon Field, a certain nonwooded 30 aker plot within viewing distance of downtown San Antonio.


The group seeks to perpetuate, in the memory and hearts of the American people, the spirit in which the liaison pilots, their crews and the airplanes served in the defense of a nation. – Alamo Liaison Squadron

Bearhawk Model 5 First Flight of First Kit-built and STOL Competition Winner

AUSTIN, TEXAS, NOVEMBER 10, 2022 – Bearhawk Aircraft announced today the first flight of the first kit-built Bearhawk Model 5 aircraft. The new Bearhawk 5 is a 6-Place design that performs exceptionally well on unimproved runways and in backcountry settings. Built originally for heavy hauling and bulky loads Bearhawk aircraft are known for their performance and strength.

A powerful and responsive new model, the aircraft performed as expected according to Rollie Van Dorn who flew the required first 25 hours in the first kit-built Bearhawk 5. Van Dorn is a commercial airline pilot and has previously flown numerous other Bearhawk aircraft including the Model 5 prototype. He commented on the required flight regiment, “When maneuvering, the larger Model 5 feels the same as the Patrol [2-Place tandem model]. Ailerons actually feel lighter. I expected this build to perform exactly the same as the prototype, and it did without exception.”

Van Dorn said he flew 8.7 hours one day, making over 20 landings in the new aircraft. To busy himself during the required 25 hours of local flying, he monitored speed and power. At 8,500 feet, the aircraft indicated 142 knots TAS at 24-square. He also noted altitude was easily maintained with reduced power and fuel consumption was between 11.0–15.7 gallons-per-hour. In pitching up the aircraft exhibited gentle manners, also when maneuvering in steep turns. Van Dorn added, “The Model 5 lands nicely and goes really fast.” With the intake oriented forward, ram airflow helps improve fuel servo performance. “I was able to skywrite and view BEARHAWK on my G3X and ADS-B displays. This made the time go by faster but also heightened my appreciation for the Model 5’s agile flying qualities.”

The Bearhawk Model 5 was designed to use Lycoming engines from 250–315 horsepower. While the prototype used a 315-hp IO-580, this first kit completion used a 300-hp angle-valve IO-540. It swings a Hartzell 3-blade propeller (82” diameter, carbon fiber). Both engines give a power-to-weight ratio equivalent to the most powerful competition acrobatic planes; this makes for spectacular takeoff and climb. Van Dorn noted that the Model 5 really pushes you back in your seat and blasts off the ground in a short distance.

The Bearhawk Model 5 (designating fifth in the series) retains the classic styling of previous Bearhawks. The familiar high-wing design with conventional gear performs safely and predictably, especially on unpaved surfaces. The most notable change from the original 4-Place is that the Model 5 is bigger, seating up to six. The two largest Bearhawk models might be compared to the Cessna 180, a 4-place aircraft, and the Cessna 185 six-seater. However, the Bearhawk is lighter and stronger, and can haul more with easy access through its large cargo door. A YouTube video, ‘A Walk Around the New Bearhawk Five’ with builder Collin Campbell, provides more detail… youtube.com/watch?v=k29_JrCACpY&t=1204s.

Differences between the 4-Place and Model 5 are few, including a 2-inch wider and noticeably longer fuselage supplying extra interior volume. The Model 5’s fuselage is of welded 4130 tubing with a lower part count and weight. Both models are fabric covered with all aluminum wings and spars. Skins are .025/.032 on a Riblet airfoil—which Bob Barrows had design input on with Harry Riblet—common on all Bearhawk designs and optimized for both higher speeds and low speed handling.

Northeast STOL Series Win for Bearhawk

The Northeast STOL Series is a competition held at different locations in the northeastern U.S. taking place during the summer season. According to participant Peter Brown, “While it’s smaller and draws a local crowd, it’s a great time and we enjoy the competition among friends.”

An association with Mark Goldberg, kit manufacturer of the Bearhawk lineup, led Brown to take temporary possession of the prototype Model 5 which Brown flew from AirVenture Oshkosh 2021 to his home in the Northeast. Brown demonstrated the Model 5 in the region, including at STOL events. After a few months with the Model 5, he finalized the purchase of a Bearhawk Patrol.

“The Patrol fits me and my mission perfectly. With 55 gallons of fuel I can fly long legs on cross country flights. Better yet I can fly out and back to some remote spots that don’t have fuel available. I’m able to fly from central Vermont to northern Maine non-stop, have lunch and return in one day burning less fuel than in my previous PA-18-95, which required a fuel stop, and which over the same distance required an overnight stay.”

After building time in his Patrol, Brown began competing in the Northeast STOL Series. “Like anything it takes practice to be consistent with your landings, takeoffs and learning the capabilities of your aircraft, but after a bit it started to work and I was able to move from a few 3rd place finishes up to 1st and 2nd place finishes.” Competing head-to-head with Super Cubs and Carbon Cubs, the Patrol performed well enough throughout the series this year to take the overall win on total points.

“The best part is I can fly 200–300 miles, compete in an event, and fly back the same day with the Patrol’s high cruise speed. I’ve not found a better aircraft that combines the true bush plane strength of a chromoly steel fuselage, flight characteristics, STOL capability, and cruise speed,” concluded Brown. For more information on Northeast STOL Series… facebook.com/people/Northeast-STOL-Series/100064128671316/. Visit Peter Brown’s 500AGL on YouTube at… youtube.com/c/500AGL.

Bearhawk aircraft are available in kit or plan form. Models range from 2-, 4- and 6-Place configurations. All Bearhawk aircraft excel at accessing remote airstrips and are renown for their rugged construction and carrying capacity. Avipro / Bearhawk Aircraft manufactures high quality Quick Build kits for the Bearhawk 4-Place Model B, Bearhawk Patrol, Bearhawk Companion, Bearhawk LSA, and Bearhawk Model 5.

For more information on Bearhawk Aircraft, visit www.bearhawkaircraft.com, or contact Bearhawk at info@bearhawkaircraft.com or 1-877-528-4776, or 512 -626-7886.

– Bearhawk –

Bearhawk Patrol Northeast STOL Series winner
Peter Brown in the Bearhawk Patrol on touchdown in the Northeast STOL Series competition.
6-Place Bearhawk Model 5
Bearhawk Model 5, a 6-Place aircraft that performs exceptionally well in the backcountry.

L-Birds of a Feather Mock Together

The golden age of aviation was an era of rapid and fervent development for fixed wing aircraft. Many design innovations occurred during this period from 1919–1939 essentially between the two wars.

This was a time when classic aerodynamic lines and popular characters dominated. Air races and barnstorming displays were common. Airports were deemed a necessity for any progressive minded community, and so they built them. Regulations were few, and daring pilots achieved fatality or fame.

Commercial use of airplanes was just beginning, and manufacturing firms were numerous and thriving. Among many private industries, light aircraft production was decidedly individual and personal. The use of aircraft, like mass production at the time, served wide-ranging purposes. Farming and ranching industries benefitted, as did prospectors of land and mineral resources. The U.S. was a vast and unexplored territory. Aviation served to make it less formidable.

Meanwhile, all of aviation’s civil applications would reflect upon the armed forces and a developing need to carry out missions on foreign soil. For military use, aircraft had been previously employed in two primary roles, assault and reconnaissance. These were the delivery of bombs and fire, and surveillance on the adversary. Airplanes were a powerful tool, the extent to which had not yet been fully understood as ground forces had dominated national defense prior. However, a medial role that proved to be equally important would emerge—that of the liaison. Referring both to pilot and aircraft, liaison forces would quite simply permit ground armies to perform with greater accuracy, intelligence and expediency.

The key players in light aviation during WWII turned out to be Piper Aircraft and Stinson Aircraft companies. Despite their dominance, other aircraft manufacturers were prevalent, and collectively they contributed to the deployment and successes of the liaison role.

L-birds that missed the cut in WWII

Most historians agree that one aircraft in particular had the greatest influence on the adoption of light aircraft for use in the armed forces. This was the Fieseler Fi 156 Storch—an oddity of German origin that was noted for its excellent short field (takeoff and landing) performance and low stall speed (around 31 mph). The aircraft looked strange in that it was slender, unusually svelte and angular. At 32.5 feet long, and nearly 47 feet in wingspan, its ability to float was derisively misunderstood. In comparison to the Piper L-4 or Stinson L-5 it was significantly heavier and less agile.

Fieseler Fi 156 Storch manufactured by Gerhard Fieseler Werke of Germany and Aéroplanes Morane-Saulnier of France.

What made the greatest impression on lookers of the Storch was its unique ability to operate from short, unimproved and improvised landing fields—a daunting feat for aircraft large or small at the time. Following a public review of the Storch’s abilities, U.S. production of a similar such aircraft was commenced. The resulting Stinson L-1 Vigilant was eventually produced in a quantity of 324, of which only a handful remain today. The aircraft was notoriously complex and costly.

Stinson L-1 / O-49 Vigilant manufactured by Stinson Aircraft Company of Michigan. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Aircraft similar to the L-1 (a.k.a. O-49), and Storch, must also be credited with with the liaison class coming of age. These included the Douglas O-46 of which 90 were built from 1936–1937. The O-46 was, if anything, more curvaceous than the Storch. It utilized a radial Pratt & Whitney R-1535 Wasp engine, big and heavy like the aircraft itself.

Douglas O-46 manufactured by Douglas Aircraft Company of California. (Wildr1 @ ww2aircraft.net)

Likewise noteworthy was the Ryan YO-51 Dragonfly. It too was designed for optimum short takeoff and landing (STOL) capability. In 1940 three prototypes were built and testing proved highly successful. Full-span slots (gaps along the forward wing edge) and Fowler flaps (extensions beyond and downward of the aft wing edge) contributed to its STOL prowess. It again was large at 35.5 feet long and 52 feet in wingspan, and was powered by a Wasp engine.

Ryan YO-51 Dragonfly manufactured by Ryan Aeronautical Company of California. (Rudy Arnold @ airhistory.net)

A third finalist in a 1938 U.S. Army Air Corps competition, with the Stinson YO-49 and Ryan YO-51, was the Bellanca YO-50. At the time all were considered observation (O) aircraft as the liaison (L) class had yet to be formed. In 1940 Bellanca built three prototypes, and with an inverted “V” Ranger V-770 engine it resembled the Storch. Wingspan was a browbeating 55.5 feet.

Bellanca YO-50 manufactured by Bellanca Aircraft Company of Delaware. (Jack Fisher @ 1000aircraftphotos.com)

The slot (similar to a leading edge slat which is moveable) was purportedly discovered independently in both Germany by Gustav Victor Lachmann and England by Frederick Handley Page. Lechmann subsequently joined the Handley Page Company and the device became known throughout the world as the Handley Page Slot. Handley Page manufactured a one-off example of a biplane, the H.P.39 Gugnunc, incorporating a slotted and flapped wing.

H.P.39 Gugnunc manufactured by Handley Page Limited of Great Britain.

Future STOL

A more successful rendition of a STOL class, high-wing utility aircraft was the Helio Courier introduced in 1954. Used by the the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army Special Forces, the so-designated L-24 Courier and L-28 Super Courier were used for liaison work, light cargo and supply drops, psychological warfare, forward air control, insertion and extraction by land and sea, and reconnaissance. The L-28 was later redesignated U-10. With a length of 30 ft 8 in, wingspan of 39 ft, and accommodation for pilot plus five passengers its overall size was in-between that of the L-1 and L-5. Some 500 Helio Couriers were built of which approximately 120 were L-28 / U-10 models.

L-28 Super Courier manufactured by Helio Aircraft Company of Massachusetts. (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives photo)

Not-to-be-forgotten STOL

Another in the utility/STOL class, however seating more than two and seeing service as a liaison aircraft, was the Bellanca 31-50 Senior Skyrocket. Stout in profile, the six- and eight-seat utility aircraft from which it derived was less gangly than the L-1 and Storch. Among 33 built only one was impressed into military service by the USAAF in 1942 in Alaska. It was identified as the L-11.

Bellanca L-11 Senior Skyrocket manufactured by Bellanca Aircraft Company of Delaware. (Library and Archives Canada, Russell Baker Collection)

The Show Goes On

Stinson was steadily busy producing four- to six-seat Voyager and Reliant models preceding, and some concurrent with, the L-1 and L-5 beginning in 1933. The military L-9, derived from the Voyager, was labeled HW-75, Model 105, Model 10, YO-54, AT-19, and UC-81 at various stages. Its commercial availability enabled orders by the military for immediate use.

Stinson L-9 Voyager (Wright State University, Walter Matthews Jefferies Collection)

Various models of the Reliant were produced using a radial engine, even a gull wing modification. Eventually the four-seat Reliant was impressed into service with the USAAF during WWII as the L-12, comprising two SR.5A models and another two SR.7B models as the L-12A.

Stinson L-12 Reliant

The Stinson L-13 was a bit more peculiar with its narrow aft fuselage. It arrived later in 1945. 28 Were converted for cold weather operations using a combination of wheels, skis and floats, and given the L-13B moniker.

Stinson L-13 manufactured by Convair, previously Consolidated Vultee of which Stinson was a subsidiary.

Various Stinson configurations included ambulance (accommodating one or two stretchers), cargo, target towing, firefighting and photography. Stinson built 1,052 examples of the L-9 Voyager lineage, 1,327 variants of the L-12 Reliant type, and 302 of the L-13 including two XL-13 prototypes.

Taking the narrow aft fuselage to the extreme was the L-15, or YL-15, Boeing Scout, a two-occupant STOL observation concept with an aft-facing observer seat. Only 12 were produced by the airframer giant in an bailed attempt to enter the light aircraft market.

Boeing L-15 Scout (johnbr @ ww2aircraft.net)

Light Flivvers

On the truly lighter side, the Cub was not alone in achieving its superstardom. Though Aeronca, Taylorcraft and Interstate made their mark in WWII, other Cub-like flivvers too were vying for a patch on the grass.

Standouts in the two-seater, high-wing class of aviation’s golden age include the Porterfield Collegiate. The series, CP-40/50/55/60/65 (Continental powered, while others were Franklin ‘FP’ or Lycoming ‘LP’ powered), is distinguishable by its parallel wing struts. Produced from 1936–1942, 476 were reportedly built, and the model is today considered light-sport per FAA rules. Many were used in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) introducing civilians to military aviation. Importantly, company founder Edward E. Porterfield is credited with promoting, alongside William T. Piper, the use of light aircraft to the AAF in the early stages of WWII. Porterfield also designed the Eaglet 31 in 1930, of which approximately 93 were built.

Porterfield Collegiate manufactured by Porterfield Aircraft Corporation of Kansas City.

Using the familiar Continental engines du jour, Rearwin Aircraft (later Commonwealth Aircraft) derived its Skyranger from earlier single-engine sport monoplanes. Produced from 1940 to 1947 (with a pause in the middle), 358 Skyrangers were built. Its construction also followed the Cub types du jour in being a fabric-covered steel tube fuselage with wooden wings. However, remarks that it was “too challenging to fly,” led to its exclusion from the CPTP training fleet.

Rearwin-Commonwealth Skyranger manufactured in Kansas City.

Lesser known was the Welch OW (models 3, 5M, 6M, 6S, 7M, 8M) with progressively larger engines from 37–45 hp. An OW-9M concept with a Lycoming O-145 @ 55 hp was never built. Controls on the Welch were mounted overhead with an adjustable control wheel that could be positioned for either pilot (akin to the single throw control yoke of a Bonanza). Its appearance was likened to the Aeronca C-3 with a forward bloated, aft tapering fuselage.

Welch OW aircraft manufactured by Orin Welch Aircraft Company, Indiana. (1000aircraftphotos.com, Jim Brink & Ed Garber Collection)

None of these three Cub-like flivvers ever received an L-designation. However, their similarity with the style du jour is apparent. All diminutive taildraggers, their reclined perch on the tarmac, level when aloft, gave one or two occupants shoulder mounted wings afore an undulating T-tail and a spring wheel.

Though introduced post-war in 1946, the same can be said of the Fleet 80 Canuck—a Canadian side-by-side, high-wing fabric covered tourer. 225 Examples of the Canuck were built before production ended in 1958.

Fleet 80 Canuck manufactured by Fleet Aircraft of Canada.

One bereft among the early birds but carrying the L-moniker nevertheless was the L-7 Monocoupe 90 (Monocoupe aircraft would later become Universal Molded Products). Designed by Don Luscombe in 1928, the Monocoupe 90 was built into the late 1940s to a quantity of 324. A military version of the Model 90AF (sporting a Franklin engine vs. the previous radial engined versions) was bought by the USAAF. Designating 20 units as the Universal L-7, they were transferred to the Free French Forces. Equally noteworthy, Don Luscombe would later become known for his advanced sheet metal light aircraft—taking cues from larger aircraft of the time.

Monocoupe 90 (L-7) designed by Donald A. Luscombe for Monocoupe Aircraft in Iowa.

It is said that mocking is the sincerest form of flattery. Truth be known it is said of imitation. But all things being equal, a mock-up being a prototype, and to mock something meaning to draw attention to its perceived outstanding qualities, that’s precisely what the L-birds and their influencers did. Though only a few received official L-bird notoriety, each made their contribution to the class. Many returned from battle with honors. The unifying characteristics they all expressed were short-range and short field superiority, availability anywhere and for nearly any task, and the quintessential quality of humans mocking birds for their extraordinary defeat of the boundary between surface and space.

Postscript

While not a comprehensive inventory, but taking into account production notes in this article and known production of the most utilized L-2 thru L-6 aircraft of WWII, approximately 21,000-plus liaison aircraft have served the US and its Allies. Considering post-WWII liaison types the total number of aircraft exceeds 28,000.

Following WWII…
The L-3 essentially became the L-16 when in 1946 Aeronca began producing the improved L-16A (7BCM Champion), of which 509 were built, and the L-16B (7CCM Champion) of which 100 were built. These served in the Korean War.

The L-4 essentially became the L-18 and L-21. From 1947–1949 the PA-11 Cub Special was produced and given the L-18 designation of which 105 were built and delivered to Turkey under the Military Assistance Program. Beginning in 1949 Piper produced the PA-18 Super Cub building:

  • 838 of the L-18C (95 hp Continental C90-8F engine) of which many were sent to other nations under the Mutual Defense Assistance Program
  • Two YL-21 (135 hp Lycoming 0-290-D2 engine) evaluation units
  • 150 of the L-21A (125 hp Lycoming 0-290-II engine)
  • 584 of the L-21B (approved YL-21). These were redesignated U-7A in 1962.

The Piper NE-1 / NE-2 derived from J-3, while the Piper AE-1 / HE-1 derived from J-5.
The Piper YL-14 derived from J-5. An order for 845 of the L-14 was cancelled after five/eight units were built.
The Piper L-4F / UC-83 derived from J-5A Cruiser (Continental A75-8 engine), four built and served in Panama, additional 39 built.
The Piper L-4G derived from J-5B Cruiser (Lycoming GO-145-C2 engine), 34 built.

Piper L-birds served in many Allied countries where many can still be found today including: Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Iran, Italy, Israel, Japan, Katanga (central Africa), Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Uganda, Uruguay.

A single low-wing three-seat Ryan S-C-W with a radial engine was impressed into service in 1942 as the L-10. Though a taildragger it had little other similarity with the L-bird class. Ryan also built 246 L-17 low-wing four-seat Navion aircraft that were later designated U-18.

The O-1 / L-19 Birddog was developed in 1949 serving after WWII. Cessna built 3,431 units.

The DHC-2 / L-20 Beaver also came later in 1952. L-2 designation was changed to U-6A, de Havilland Canada built 1,657 of the type.

Built in Czechoslovakia the L-60 Brigadýr resembled the Storch. Aero Vodochody produced 273 examples from 1953–1960.

Notations…

YO – Indicates an aircraft was a pre-production, or evaluation (Y), observation (O) aircraft. It was thus assigned a military designation number (Serial Number if USAF/USAAC/USAAS/USAAF or a Bureau Number [buno] if Navy/Marines) and a manufacturer’s serial number (MSN).

XO – Indicates the first test unit, or experimental (X), observation(O) aircraft
XL – Indicates experimental (X), liaison (L) aircraft

YO-57 (four built) and O-57 would become Taylorcraft L-2; Total 2,168
YO-58 (four built) and O-58B would become Aeronca L-3; Total (including L-16) 2,248
YO-59 (four built) and O-59 / J3C-65D would become Piper L-4; Total (all) 7,752
O-62 would become Stinson L-5, then later U-19; Total 3,590
XO-63 would become Interstate L-6, 251 built (one XO then 250 L-6), L-6 differs from the L-8 of which only eight were built for Bolivia; Total 259

In 1962 a new single letter designation system was implemented while the L-designation was dropped. U – Indicates a utility aircraft.