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W’bago man is winging it

By Staff | Apr 11, 2010

Having already restored five cars, it is not surprising to learn 88-year old Neil Royer is at it again. But, he is changing gears from cars to planes.

“I always wanted to have a plane,” Royer says. “But the only one I could afford was if I were to build my own.”

He has been doing just that since April 2008 and hopes to have his Pietenpol Air Camper completed by his 90th birthday in 2012.

Royer grew up on a farm near Balaton where he graduated in 1940. He then helped area farmers. The next year, he traveled to California where he briefly attended St. Mary’s College, before he began working for North America Aviation. While employed there until 1944, he helped build B-25s and the P-51 Mustang.

Undoubtedly, this is where his fascination for planes began, as well as his basic knowledge about their construction.

In 1944, he entered the U.S. Naval Reserves and was stationed in Jacksonville. While there, he was a plane captain on PBYs and the PB4Y. Upon his discharge in 1946, he had attained the rank of seaman first class.

After his stint in the Navy, Royer worked at John Deere and Chevrolet in Balaton before moving to Marshall where he did curb and gutter work for a construction company.

After his marriage, he worked with his father-in-law in 1947 in the family’s grocery store which was known as the Winnebago Cash Store. (It was located next to the present Roerig Hardware business). He also worked on the cleaning crew at the Winnebago canning factory at this time. One night, he says he asked if anyone knew of any job openings. He was referred to Don Lindgren and the rest is history.

“I started plumbing with Don Lindgren in 1949 and by 1955 I opened my own business in my garage,” says Royer. He then took his apprentice training in Mankato for his journeyman’s license in 1954-1955 and earned his master plumber rating in 1957.

He bought the old VFW lot in 1963 or 1964 to house his supplies and by 1975 he purchased the present site of Royer’s on Winnebago’s main street.

From 1970-1974, he taught plumbing, heating and ventilation (sheet metal) at the vocational school in Jackson.

It was at this point he got interested in restoring vehicles.

Among the five he has restored are: a 1928 Model A closed cab pickup; 1929 Model A roadster; 1930 Model A station wagon in which he built the body from scratch; 1936 F.B. Chevrolet half-ton pickup; and a 490 1918 Chevrolet touring car.

His favorite is the Model A roadster he restored in 1978 or 1979.

Building the plane in his garage, or “Playpen” as everyone in his family calls it, has been his biggest challenge.

Royer got more enthusiastic about building his Pietenpol plane or Air Camper after attending AirVenture Oshkosh 2009. At this event, the plane was celebrating 80 years in existence.

Designed to be built of spruce and plywood, Pietenpol’s original idea was to create a plane that was affordable and easy to construct by home builders, since it requires only basic woodworking skills and tools. Builders also need to fabricate some metal fittings to attach the wooden parts together. Some welding is also required in its construction, too. The construction sounded like a piece of cake to Royer with his plumbing and restoration skills.

“It (Pietenpol plane) has been a challenge,” admits Royer. “It has taken me more time than I expected. It took me four years to make the station wagon and I didn’t have to make all the parts. With this, (plane) I’ve had to saw all the pieces.”

The blueprints for the plane number over a dozen and are posted in Royer’s Playpen for him to study.

Royer says he also has to maintain a log on everything before he can obtain, upon completion, an air worthiness certificate.

He says he made the propeller first. This took him about three weeks. The airframe took him about six months, but he is still working on it. All the while, he has the airframe sitting on little trolleys atop a frame which rotates 360 degrees. This makes it easier for him to work on.

The ribs for the wings took Royer six months to complete. Each rib has 40 pieces and there are 34 ribs in the wing. Therefore, he had about 1,360 pieces to build just in this section alone.

The tail feathers took him another three months to construct.

Royer says he’s traded some equipment for equipment in the case of the landing gear and lift struts. He says both had to be modified a bit, but that’s the name of the game.

“I generally work on it after ‘Wheel of Fortune’ until about 9 p.m.,” says Royer.

He used Sitka spruce for the airframe, but the prop is made out of white oak. These were the recommended woods printed on the blueprints.

“I’ll completely assemble it in my “Playpen,” says Royer. “Then I’ll be sure it fits and I can paint it.

Since his favorite color is red, he says he will paint the plane a reddish-orange with the wings being more yellow in color.

When the plane is completed, it will stand about six feet, six inches high, have a wing span of 30 feet and be 18 feet from front to back. It will weigh about 800 pounds – which includes the take-off weight of the gasoline and pilot aboard.

He will install a Model A Ford engine in it, so the plane will use ordinary gasoline.

Because the plane is classified as experimental, Royer says he can fly it simply by using his driver’s license…providing he can renew it.

“I told everyone I was going to get this in the air by the time I’m 90, but I don’t want anyone to hold me to that.

For anyone considering making a Pietenpol Air Camper, Royer says you have to have a lot of patience and dedication.

“I have asked myself many times while building this plane,” says Royer, “what in the Sam hell am I doing? I’m going to have to finish it now, since so many people know about it, though.

He says he’s also got to find a brave soul who will fly it for him. His son, Dick, who is a pilot, has already told him he’s not going to be the first to fly it.

“It’s not a success until it’s in the air,” summarizes Royer.

Another obstacle facing Royer is how to get it off Winnebago’s main street. He has had some rather humorous conversations with the chief of police regarding this.

He says, as his next project, he would like to restore a tractor…in fact, a John Deere AR (1936-1938) model.

“I’ve got to have something else to look forward to,” says the grinning 88-year old Royer.