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Bath man's WW I-era airplane on display at MAPS Air Museum

4/3/2008 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

Bath resident Bill Woodall holds a model of the Sopwith Triplane. During an 18-year period, he built from scratch a replica of the British plane.
Photo: Kathleen Folkerth
BATH — As a child, dime novels about the exploits of World War I pilots enthralled Bill Woodall. Flying magazines provided the Akron native with details about the planes that flew in that bygone era.

On one of the magazine covers, there was a picture showing the front of the Sopwith Triplane, a British aircraft. Woodall, having some artistic inclinations, drew the picture on a larger scale and hung it on his ceiling over his bed.

Maybe all those years of sleeping beneath its image did something to Woodall, for years later he decided to build from scratch a reproduction of the plane.

“It was a strange thing to have done,” said Woodall, 81, a resident of Bath.

Bill Woodall’s re-creation of the Sopwith Triplane is on display at the Military Aviation Preservation Society (MAPS) Air Museum.
Photo courtesy of MAPS Air Museum
Today, Woodall’s re-creation of the fighter plane is on display at the Military Aviation Preservation Society (MAPS) Air Museum at the Akron-Canton Airport, where all can see the detail and precision with which he crafted the plane.

It took Woodall 18 years and about $18,000 to build the plane. He can’t even begin to estimate the number of hours the project consumed.

“I don’t even want to know,” he said.

Following his graduation from Kenmore High School, Woodall entered the Navy, where he learned to fly from 1944 to 1946. He was in training during the last year of World War II and never saw combat.

Following his stint in the military, he attended Ohio Wesleyan University, where he majored in math and physics. He worked for Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. for 46 years as a tire engineer but continued to explore his passion for flying through participation in a local flying club.

When he and his first wife became parents of their three children, he temporarily hung up his pilot’s cap.

His interest in the Sopwith Triplane, a fighter plane built by the Sopwith Aviation Co. beginning in 1916, led him to order blueprints from the company, which was later known as Hawker Siddeley Aviation. Only about 150 of the planes were built originally, he said.

According to the detailed logs Woodall has kept on his Triplane project, he received the plans June 29, 1973.

“I just wanted to look through them to see if it looked doable,” he said. “At the time I didn’t realize all those pieces would have to be made by hand.”

Looking over the drawings, he noted the middle of the plane’s top wing would be a challenge to construct. So he decided to start there. Within the next year he had built the wing out of wood, steel and wire.

“When I succeeded with that, I was hooked,” he said.

He worked in his basement, then in the garage and eventually moved the project to a barn in Wadsworth and finally to a hangar in Chatham Township in Medina County.

By 1993, the plane was completed and ready for its first flight, which Woodall tried to keep a low-key affair.

“I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself in front of people,” he said.

Despite his efforts to keep the event unpublicized, word got out and a crowd showed up at the airport to see him.

“I felt pressure to do something,” he said. “When the engine got going, I thought I’d just pop it into the air.”

But when he started to take off, the engine responded immediately.

“The airspeed indicator was way up high,” he said. “I thought, ‘I don’t know how to fly it.’”

He attempted to land twice unsuccessfully. By the third attempt the plane was starting to come apart.

“The trip was rather nail biting,” he said. “People on the ground thought I was having a ball. I’m sweating like mad trying to get it back.”

After about 15 minutes in the air, he managed to get the plane down.

“Everything felt all right until I went home,” Woodall said, recalling how he realized the seriousness of the situation while driving home. “I was lucky.”

He only flew the plane a couple of more times after that, but he did put it on display occasionally.

The Triplane was being kept in a hangar in Wadsworth when Woodall was asked to talk last year about the project at a meeting of the Martin B-26 Society at The University of Akron. He said one of the MAPS directors approached him after his presentation and asked if he’d be interested in displaying the plane there.

The plane was brought to the museum earlier this year and was assembled and put on display. Steve Satchell, one of the museum’s directors, said the plane is an asset to the museum.

“It’s a beautiful job,” he said.

Having the plane on display is good for the museum because until now, it did not have any World War I-era aircraft in its collection.

“There have been people coming in to see it,” Satchell said.

Woodall said he doesn’t expect to see the plane flown, but he hopes he can be on hand at museum events to start up the plane occasionally.

While Woodall has retired from his hobby of building planes, he’s turned his attention in recent years to writing poetry. One of his poems, “Antique,” deals with his unique passion for the Sopwith Triplane.

“There’s no way to explain this to the ordinary man/why you fight to recreate, what to most lived out its span,” he wrote in the poem.

In another line, perhaps he finds his answer: “All the info that you’re feeling through the cables to the stick/Like a living creature wakened; and you caused it — what a kick!”

The MAPS Air Museum is located at 2260 International Parkway in Green, on the west side of the Akron-Canton Airport. It is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and until 9 p.m. Wednesdays. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for senior citizens (age 55 and older), $4 for children ages 5-12 and free for children younger than 5. For information, call (330) 896-6332 or go to www.mapsairmuseum.org.

More information on the plane can be found at Woodall’s Web site at www.triplanebuilder.com.

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