A Vagabond is Reborn

By Dr Dirk J Booysen


Vagabond PA 17 -212 was manufactured in 1949 and registered in South Africa as ZS-DCN on the 1st March 1949. From the available records she was owned and operated by Natal Aviation and used extensively for training by this company in the Sixties and Seventies. At the time an hour of tuition cost the princely fuel-inclusive sum of R8 at the prevailing R1/USD rate of exchange.

The record shows the aircraft was written off on April 1, 1977 with no details as to the nature of the accident. The aircraft was then rebuilt and registered in the non-type certified (NTCA) category as ZS-UJW. The serial number was changed to HDJ-1 and the manufacturer and designation recorded as a Phoenix RDS-1. This was to satisfy the then DCA (Directorate of Civil Aviation) rules regarding non-type certified rebuilt aircraft in South Africa - which created an interesting dilemma regarding type conversion after the recent restoration (more later).

The DCA rules also required a slight change to the original design specifications, when the owner at the time decided to fit a larger engine and make changes to the wing tips and structure to enable aerobatic flight.



ZS-UJW circa 1980, note the shortened wings and blunt wing tips


The aircraft was successfully test flown in the 1980s, but soon afterwards was involved in another accident due to incorrect fuel cock selection resulting in a loss of engine power on take-off and a forced landing. The aircraft was again substantially damaged and the wreck was bought by Corrie Lombard from Peak Aviation, as a restoration project.

He undertook the work slowly stripping the wings, fuselage and selling the over-powered 180HP engine which the previous owner had installed. The airframe and both wings were completely rebuilt according to original Piper factory specifications.

The steel fuselage frame was re jigged, x-rayed, powder coated, and then covered at the same time as the wings. All in all, Corrie wanted to restore the wing tips to the original Piper Vagabond configuration, getting rid of the abomination of the shortened cut-off wing tips.



Painting, smooth as a baby's butt

The aircraft then sat in the hangar for another few years before I was told of its existence three years ago. I was overcome by such passion for the little plane I decided there and then to purchase the project and help restore it to its former glory. The only provision was that Peak Aviation would help me complete the rebuild to original factory specifications.


Time for the registration to get painted



Masked and ready for the contrasting colour


Registration and contrasting colours done, note wings and seats in the back ground


We then decided on a Continental O-200-A 100HP engine (Fig. 2 & 11), mainly due to the 5500 feet elevation of Krugersdorp Airfield (FAKR) where the aircraft is based. Summer temperatures at the field often reach 30į C with Density Altitudes over 8500 feet. The short runway and chronic crosswind conditions add to interesting afternoons flying tail-draggers, to say the least.


Engine mounted



Sorting out the cowl


Engine bay, note the RDAC engine monitor sender

The project progressed well save for a few minor issues with parts, such as the engine mount which we had to import at quite an expense due to the poor Rand/Dollar exchange rate. The engine was factory reconditioned and a new lightweight Skytech starter motor and Plane Power alternator were fitted. A Marvel Shebler MA 3 -SPA carburettor and SLICK 4230 magnetos were chosen. We opted for Cleveland 600 x 6 wheels and brakes completed with master cylinder assemblies fitted on both pilot and co-pilot sides to make training and a little easier. The tail-wheel assembly is from a Maule aircraft and steerable. We settled for a McCauley 1A100MC prop, found a little too fine during the first test flight. The setting was subsequently altered by a reputable prop shop and at full power the cruise setting does not exceed 2550 RPM.


Brake assembly and fuel cock, note both pilots have functional toe brakes making training substantially less risky

In addition to the array of 'steam driven' instruments including ASI, altimeter, compass, oil pressure gauge and volt meter I opted for a MGL Enigma EFIS, which has excellent moving map GPS features. The system can be configured to the pilot's preference. Though the purists may find this a tad too modern the equipment has certainly proven its worth, especially on cross-country flights. The panel is rounded off with a King KY 97 transceiver, linked to a Softcom two-place intercom.


Instrument panel with MGL Enigma EFIS


The final product

After the first test flight the trim lever was repositioned from the left side of the fuselage to the centre cockpit, between the two pilots. This makes handling this hands-on lady a lot easier, especially considering the right-hand operating throttle, mixture, trim, and carb heat while the left hand holds the stick. Looking back, the original position of the trim lever made for some interesting moments on approach and landing.


Leather seat

Two 13 gallon Wag Aero E425-000 wing tanks were fitted feeding the Wag Aero E475-000 header tank behind the firewall. A single shut-off valve is located in the cockpit between the header tank and gascolator.

The revamped little aircraft was finally instated as ZS-UJW on the South African CAA register on the October 27, 2015. The manufacturer and type remains as Phoenix RDS - 1 and the serial number HDJ-1.

I then faced another dilemma as no instructors in South Africa were type-rated on a 'Phoenix RDS-1' whilst CAA refused to change the designation back to a Piper PA 17 Vagabond. Instead of pursuing a costly and time-consuming argument (as this is a fully AMO restored aircraft using original Piper Vagabond specifications) I began looking for an instructor for my conversion to type training. I also fly a 1941 De Havilland Tiger Moth and approached Brian Stableford aka 'The General' who had helped me obtain a rating. As a retired military and airline pilot with an open rating he managed to convince CAA that the Phoenix was indeed a Vagabond and they granted him a rating.

The first test flight took place on December 5, 2015. The little aircraft got airborne in less than half of Krugersdorp's short runway. The General orbited the field for 30 minutes. Unfortunately the propeller pitch was too fine resulting in high RPM which could damage the engine at full throttle. We called it a day. The propeller was sent for alterations while Corrie refitted the trim and attended to a few minor snags. The next flight took place on the February 20, 2016 on a hot summer's day with a density altitude of 8500 feet at Krugersdorp. I sat in the hot seat with The General next to me. We took off slightly uphill from Runway 08 and managed to get airborne with ĺ full tanks quite a long way from where we started our run.



Brian Stableford aka "the general" on the left and me at the test flight on the 5th December 2015

Once in the air she flew beautifully with very responsive controls especially in the roll, which was not unexpected due to the relatively large ailerons. The trim tab was also very responsive and climb was managed by just trimming up and holding the stick as still as possible.

I soon found that the Vagabond certainly does not like large control inputs. The best technique was to rest my left arm on my left leg keeping the stick as still as possible. Banking was easily accomplished with minimal input from the stick and a little leading rudder, just to keep the ball in the centre.

The aim was just to get a feel for the aircraft. At full power (2550 RPM) she got 95 MPH in the cruise. We climbed easily at 75 MPH with 350 fpm on the VSI. I flew the circuit and let The General take over on short final approach.

I had thought the Tiger a handful till the Vagabond touched down, in a perfect three pointer. Then, things started happening fast with the little aircraft doing its best to twist about. I was grateful for the duel toe-brakes and a good instructor. The General's historic comment was: 'We had quite a fragrant flight today and not one I would care to repeat too often'.

I had a brass plaque made for the panel with renowned words from the RAF: 'All aircraft bite fools'.

This little aircraft is a tiger in sheep's clothing and quite a handful. She is not an aircraft for the faint hearted. She will snap at sloppy pilots. However, once you have mastered her nothing and I mean nothing will scare you ever again.


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