2008 Hall of Fame Inductee-
This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Vintage Airplane magazine
Note: This article was well on its way to being published when we were advised that Bill Pancake had been nominated and selected to be the 2008 inductee in the EAA Vintage Aircraft Association Hall of Fame. We personally informed Bill o fhis selection during the National Aeronca Association’s fly-in banquet in Middletown, Ohio, in the middle of June. To say he was surprised would be an understatement! So that we could adequately tell his story at an appropriate time, we’ve held Dave Clark’s terrific member profile until after the induction ceremony.-HGF
In hangars, workshops, and fixed base operator (FBO) lounges, when a question arises about anything dealing with an Aeronca, it’s not uncommon to hear, “I’m not sure- we should call Bill Pancake.”
While the legal manufacturing successors to the Aeronca type certificate have been located in a few places like Osceola and Rochester, Wisconsin, since 1970, “Aeronca-vators” know the real knowledge about their favorite brand of airplane resides in a small “factory” in Keyser, West Virginia, under the supervision of (“Chief Engineering Officer”) Bill Pancake, EAA 118244, VAA 9617. The Pancake “factory” (read workshop) is a very-modified two car garage with multiple additions. Over the years, Bill has had some hand in restoring or overhauling 11 airplanes that have been winners at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.
Bill was a very curious little boy while growing up in the mountains of West Virginia. In a recent interview, Bill said, “As a little boy, if it had a wire hooked to it, if it sparked, or if it turned and made a noise, I loved it… I just had to find out how it worked and why it sparked.”
Here’s just one example of his inventiveness. When Bill was in seventh grade, he took a metal case for a cigarette pack and inserted a model airplane ignition coil, batteries, and a switch that was triggered when opened. While sitting in class one day, he showed it to an unsuspecting classmate. The boy pulled the two halves of the case apart and got a nice shock and let out a yell. The teacher then stretched out her hand and demanded to have what Bill had in his hand. He gave her the closed case. She pulled the two halves apart and was shocked. She took Bill by the arm and marched him to the principal’s office. The principal took the case and, yes, he pulled it apart, got the shock, and let out a dignified squawk. Bill said years later that the principal told him it was all he could do not to laugh at him then. The teachers must have thought he was filled with mischief, but they could tell he was also inquisitive and very bright. Still, his stunt charging up the teacher and principal earned him a three-day “vacation”, which he said he used to work on airplanes!
While in high school, his mischievous mind concocted a plan to “shock” his friends. He mounted a telescoping auto radio antenna in a horizontal position just under the front bumper of his car. This, of course, was wired to another ignition coil with a switch controlled by Bill. He would then park just behind the car of a friend and wait until someone leaned on the car in front. He would then extend the antenna to touch the car in front and, you guessed it, “shock” his friend. It seemed his mind was never at rest.
Quite a few of the EAA/VAA types are multifaceted in talents. Bill is “megafaceted”! Since graduating from high school in Keyser in 1959, Bill has taken 15 correspondence courses and has mastered digital electronics, math, physics, chemistry, instrumentation, locksmithing, and many more subjects. Besides his interest in aviation, Bill also holds and advanced class ham radio operator license (W8SPK) and volunteers as an official U.S. Weather Bureau weather observer.
For most of his working career, Bill was employed as an electronic instrument technician by Westvaco, a high-tech paper mill. He says that electronic instruments provided a living, but aviation helped him keep his sanity. In 2002 he retired to work full time on his hobby.
Bill was hooked when he had his first airplane ride in a Taylorcraft at 6 years of age. At age 12, he started hanging around the Keyser Airport and began his aviation hobby by washing and fueling planes. Bill has been working on airplanes since he was a very young boy. In 1953, at age 13, he was doping wings behind the hangar at the Keyser Airport, in the sunlight, and two Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) inspectors, John Gibson and Bob Bell, asked him what he was doing. He said the dope blushed too much in the shade, so he moved out into the sunlight. The inspectors asked where the mechanic who supervised him was. He told them, “It’s Junior Thrush and his back at the airport in Burlington. He comes around once in a while, and the airport manager, Stanley Dantzic, is over in the office.”
Needless to say, they called the mechanic on the carpet. Three years later, at age 16, Bill was taking his private pilot written when he saw the same two CAA inspectors. He thought he was in trouble when they recognized him, but they were very cordial and encouraged him to continue in aviation. He did, and got his private pilot license the same year.
Also in 1956, he used a wire brush and a 4-inch paint brush to zinc chromate the fuselage and other parts on Harold Armstrong’s Waco 10. He did the work to preserve the Waco until Harold retired from the Air Force and was able to complete an award-winning restoration. Twenty-five years later, Bill was the IA who returned the same old bird to service. Harold shared his extensive knowledge of the OX-5 with Bill, and now he says that at age 68, he is probably the youngest OX-5 mechanic around!
In 1963, Bill married the love of his life, Saundra, and they still live in Keyser, their home town. “Saunie” is Bill’s biggest supporter and encourages him to pursue his passion, aviation. They have a daughter, Anastasia. Along with her husband, Mark, are Bill’s four grandchildren, Michael, Robert, Curtiss Robin, and Hannah, all of whom love flying! Bill soloed Michael on his 16th birthday, the Fourth of July 2004, from Miller Field in Keyser, the same field that Bill soloed from on his 16th birthday, February 9, 1956. And from the same field Curtiss Robin soloed on his 16th birthday on the 30th of October this year. Grandson Robert enjoys the airport as well- it makes a great autocross track!
Bill earned his CFI in 1970, an A&P in 1972, and his IA in 1975. His other ratings include commercial, instrument, single engine, and multiengine. He has been the Aeronca go-to guy for information for many years and has conducted seminars and forums at the EAA Fly-in and convention, the National Aeronca Association fly-in, and at other aviation meetings.
His workshop contains about every tool and all the testing equipment any airplane fixer-upper could possibly want. At one point he had a 7AC fuselage jig that he designed and built but has since sold. Besides all of the “ordinary” tools, he has a Rockwell hardness tester, an oven that can heat parts to 3,000°F, a commercial metal lathe, vertical milling machine, metal brake, instrument overhaul and repair tools, a form for making wing ribs, an alarm that is sounded when the sensor in his mailbox tells him the mail has been delivered, an alarm that goes off if his city water pressure pump is activated, an electronics drafting table, a large assortment of shortwave radio transmitters, a spray booth with a brushless motor exhaust fan, and a 114-foot-tall shortwave radio tower (he climbs it to change the lightbulb and American Flag- yikes!). Bill also designed his own “gin pole” out of 4130 tubing to raise the shortwave antenna. He also has a self-designed loop antenna lightning detector to triangulate the direction of each strike. And he has a lot more “goodies” that we could mention here.
Bill has his name on 11 Oshkosh winners, including four from Harold and Bob Armstrong: a Waco 10, Pitcairn Fleetwing II, Schweitzer SGU-19 sailplane, and an Aeronca Champ. The list also includes Jim Thompson’s Aeronca 15AC Sedan (engine overhaul) and aircraft assembly: Dave Long’s Aeronca 11CC Super Chief (it was restored twice and won twice in 1978 and 1998!); Bob Baker’s Grand Champion Aeronca 7AC Champ (2005); and Jack Vorach’s, which won both Best Champ and Best Custom in 2000. He also had several winners at the National Aeronca Association fly-in at Middletown, Ohio; Sentimental Journey at Lock Haven Pennsylvania; and some at the Winchester, Virginia fly-in as well.
Bill also did two complete restorations of his own. The first is a 1946 IFR-equipped Aeronca Champ, which won Best Custom Classic at EAA Oshkosh in 1981. He recently completed a custom Aeronca Champ, NC1890E- which included a McDowell hand starter- with 22 field approvals (The McDowell was standard on the Chief, and there were factory drawings to add it to a Champ). This airplane won Outstanding Aeronca Champ in 2003 in Oshkosh, Grand Champion and the People’s Choice Award at the National Aeronca Association Convention in 2004, and Best Custom Classic at Sentimental Journey in 2007. Bill said he has no trouble getting field approvals, since he does lots of research and is well acquainted with the very experienced FAA personnel in the Baltimore Flight Standards District Office (FSDO).
To supplement his various interests, Bill is a voracious reader. His favorite book is Mark’s Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers. He subscribes to several magazines, including Invention & Technology, and said he can’t wait to get each issue every three months. He also prefers QST and CQ magazines, as he feels they’re the best electronics and ham radio operator magazines.
Weather has interested Bill since childhood, and he enjoys Weatherwise magazine. He has been keeping weather recordings for almost 50 years, first recording them on a calendar and now in a sophisticated computerized system. For about the past 15 years, has been charting date and time, wind speed, direction, temperature, and barometric pressure every day, and the paper in his recording device needs to be refilled only every 18 months. He submits a B-91 report to the Baltimore/Washington U.S. Weather Bureau Forecast Office by computer every day and mails a hard copy every month.
If you are interested in original pre- and postwar Aeronca factory drawings, Bill has more than 5,000 of them in his personal filing cabinets. Many are replacements sent to Bill after a devastating flood wiped out his original collection. People from all over the United States thought so highly of Bill, they didn’t hesitate to make copies of their drawings and send them to him.
Bill has recently been awarded both the FAA’s Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award and the FAA’s Wright Brothers Master Pilot award for 50 years of active flight without an accident. He is the first West Virginian to receive both awards. He was also recently awarded the Distinguished Mountaineer Award by West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin and was inducted into the Keyser High School Legion of Honor in 2000. A lifetime member of the Silver Wings fraternity, he has also found time to become a deacon of the Keyser Presbyterian Church, a past master of Davis Lodge No. 51 AF and AM, and past patron of Alkire Chapter 10, Order of the Eastern Star. Bill is also an EAA technical counselor and an EAA flight advisor.
We would need a short story- no, a book- to tell of all of the accomplishments of this truly outstanding aviator, maintenance technician, restorer, shortwave radio guru, weather expert, and electronics expert. The next time you want to know anything about an Aeronca, or just about any other antique or classic aircraft, call Bill Pancake!
When asked how long he intends to keep traveling to Oshkosh and enter airplanes for judging, he said, “As long as I am physically able, I will look forward to going every year.”
Bill’s wife, Saunie, said Bill is always ready to lend a helping hand to his neighbors to fix broken things, and it doesn’t stop with airplanes. “The Bill you see in Oshkosh is the Bill I see every day; he is something special.” Bill said that his primary concern with any airplane is to keep it safe, flying, and legal.
Oh, one more thing you should know: if you are ever invited to stay at the Pancake home overnight, beware. Just when you are ready for sleep and you turn out the bedroom lights, in about a minute, they will come back on. You get up and turn them off again, and presto, they come on again in another minute. You guessed it: Bill is in the other room turning them on again and again from a remote panel in his room! I hope he never grows up!
Written by Dave Clark