Dorian Walker patted the shredded fabric on the right wing of the 1917-vintage Curtiss JN-4 biplane known as Jenny, saying “My baby” before correcting himself to say: “Our baby. A lot of people have taken interest.”
Walker, owner of the historic airplane that crash-landed Saturday at CrossWinds Golf Course a little more than a chip shot away from the Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport, was understandably pensive Tuesday as he surveyed what’s left of the plane he purchased in 2011 and spent 14 months restoring.
Jenny sat lifeless in the Co-Mar Aviation hangar at the airport, its wooden propeller a mangled mess and its battered wings still containing bits of evergreen branches from Saturday’s fateful flight that ended with the plane clipping trees before crashing on the golf course’s fourth fairway.
“I’ve flown all my life, but I’ve never been involved in something like this,” Walker said in between fielding calls from an insurance adjuster and a Federal Aviation Administration inspector. “We hope to be able to restore the plane.”
Walker, 70, is also hoping to find some answers. The FAA completed its inspection of the airplane and will now communicate its findings to the National Transportation Safety Board, which will make the accident report.
“The FAA is the investigating entity,” Walker explained. “They have all the information they need. They take their findings and send it to the NTSB. It can take up to six months for them to come up with a probable finding.”
In the meantime, Walker is turning his attention to the airplane’s future after initially being concerned solely about the condition of pilot Terry Richardson.
Richardson, a decorated pilot who has flown the JN-4 numerous times, was taking the plane up for a short flight Saturday morning but was barely airborne when he was forced to crash-land on the golf course.
“Obviously, he’s heartsick,” Walker said of Richardson. “He and I flew the last two air shows that Jenny was in.
“You always put safety of the public first (in a crash), then the pilot and finally the airplane. So two out of three is not bad. And that’s due to his piloting skill. Now we want to find out what happened.”
Walker, an experienced pilot himself, could only speculate about possible causes of the crash.
“The first thing I thought about was something coming loose in the cockpit and getting stuck in the pulley cables,” he said. “But there’s no sign of that. Wind can do strange things to this airplane. The forecast was good that day, but wind shear can cause airliners to crash. We checked the plane out and everything seemed fine. But what happened is not fine.”
Walker, founder of Bowling Green’s Peridot Pictures video production company and a veteran director and producer of movies, documentaries and television programs, uses one of his former TV shows as an analogy.
“If I were still directing ‘Unsolved Mysteries,’ this case would go to the top of the list,” he said. “There’s no obvious explanation.”
But instead of looking at the crash through a camera lens, Walker is looking at it from the viewpoint of the owner of a historic aircraft he would like to see return to the skies.
It won’t be easy.
Explaining that the FAA has strict guidelines and even requires specific types of wood for many of the parts, Walker said: “It took us over 5,000 hours to reconstruct it and quite a bit of money. A lot of investigating has to go on to determine what can be saved. We will need a new propeller, and we may need a new engine. All that stuff is expensive. Insurance will cover some but probably not all.”
Before the accident, the Jenny was one of only six JN-4s still flying. As a plane renowned for training pilots during World War I, the JN-4 was much in demand during the 100th anniversary of U.S. involvement in that war.
Walker explained that the JN-4 also flew the first U.S. Air Mail in 1918. He was aiming to have Jenny ready for celebrations of the 100th anniversary of air mail, but now those plans are on hold.
Walker and fellow members of the Friends of Jenny nonprofit group are heartened, though, by the response to the plane’s distress.
“I’m getting calls and emails from all over the country,” he said. “The plane has a lot of followers around the country. One of our members from Utah said he wants to come and see how he can help.”