Amateur Fliers Build a Little Bit of History at French Valley Airport

vintage airplaneA few miles north of here at March Air Reserve Base, crews work on C-17 military transport planes that are 174 feet long and capable of carrying multiple military vehicles.

Just south of here, at French Valley Airport, a small group of amateur aircraft enthusiasts spends every Saturday building a two-seat, single-wing plane out of wood and other common materials.

Members of the Murrieta chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, these local residents have spent the last six years building a 1928 model Pietenpol Air Camper from scratch. That's right. No kits, no factory-manufactured assemblies -- just a copy of the mechanical plans and good old-fashioned ingenuity.

And a 91-year-old former U.S. Air Force pilot as the technical counselor.

vintage airplaneArt Froehlich, a Sun City resident who flew C-47 planes in Europe during World War II, is a member of the local chapter of the EAA and the organization's representative in overseeing construction of the aircraft. Froehlich designed some of the plane's custom parts and hopes to fly in the seat behind one of the other amateur pilots after the plane is certified by the FAA sometime next year.

"Everything they do, they show it to me," Froehlich said about his role as inspector during the building process. "I say either put it in the junk pile or put it on the airplane. It's always a work in progress."

French Valley Airport is located in a quiet, spacious valley just east of Murrieta. Its modest surroundings include two runways, hangars housing about 200 small planes, and a small terminal where locals eat at the French Valley Cafe.

Drivers passing by on Highway 79 probably have no idea that in addition to the many modern planes using the airport, there is in the development stages the replica of a vintage aircraft first designed just a few years after Art Froehlich was born.

vintage airplaneThe Pietenpol Air Camper was designed in 1928 by Bernard Pietenpol as a plane that would be affordable and easy to construct for home builders. In the decades since then, it has become popular among amateur plane builders.

"It's a very strong, safe, reliable and inexpensive plane," said Steve Williamson, president of Chapter 1279 of the EAA.

"The primary focus of the EAA is to allow pilots to pursue their dreams of aviation and flight, no matter what their economic status. Art was the first to suggest we do something like this to demonstrate our skills."

Most of the parts have been completed and the plane has been assembled previously. Recently, EAA members have taken off the wings -- which span about 29 feet -- and other parts in order to paint the body of the aircraft. Once it is ready for inspection, FAA officials will check out the plane and it will be test flown before being certified for use by local EAA members who are licensed pilots.

vintage airplaneWhen that happens, it will be another realization of a dream in the life of Froehlich, who moved to Sun City from Florida 11 years ago.

"When (Charles) Lindbergh flew across the ocean, I became aware of aviation," Froehlich recalled. "Ever since I was old enough to hold a knife and use it, I made model airplanes."

After flying C-47s in World War II, Froehlich returned home to fly private aircraft and work as a maintenance foreman for American Airlines. He has been associated with the EAA since its early days in the 1950s, said Williamson. Froehlich remains a licensed pilot and has been up in a small plane as recently as two months ago, he said.

"My job is to keep us focused on the end product," Froehlich said. "A lot of builders start on a project like this and get sidetracked along the way. You have to be dedicated to do something like this."

Art Froehlich sits inside the partially assembled Pietenpol Air Camper.


EAA members (from left): Steve Williamson, Jerry Trapp, Art Froehlich, Frankie Garcia.




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