Aero Commander U9

Portable Playhouse / Camper / Tailgater

This is my Aero Commander Playhouse that I made for my grandkids and to promote aviation to others. For several years our EAA chapter has held aviation open houses allowing kids and adults to check out general aviation aircraft up close. Invariably, kids will climb in a cockpit and start slamming the controls. It's a shame to discourage this enthusiasm, but we don't want our airplanes to get damaged. The Aero Commander lets kids climb into a real airplane and still be kids. It's made for them to enjoy without worries of damaging expensive equipment. It's a blast to turn them loose and let their imaginations take over, and hopefully, plant a seed for future aviation interests. I take it to fly-in events near my home in central PA and kids of all ages really seem to love it.

Some of you may have seen the Aero Commander in camp Scholler at Airventure 2016. I set it up near the west end camp store and had a lot of visitors throughout the week. As I had hoped, it was a great way to meet people and talk aviation. The trip to and from Oshkosh was an adventure in itself with lots of beep and waves from other motorists and just a brief stop for repairs.

HISTORY

In 1952 this airplane, serial number 52-6217, along with two others, serial numbers 6218 and 6219 was delivered to the U.S. Army for evaluation. Based on favorable testing both the Army and Air Force made orders for many more. The Areo Commander 500 series (Army designation U9) would serve as executive transports for decades. President Dwight D. Eisenhower even selected an Aero Commander as Air Force One for use on short trips.

When 52-6217 was retired from service it was given to an aviation college where the engines were removed and the airframe was used for practice patching. Eventially what was left of the airframe made its way to the collection of Leon Cleaver on northwestern Ohio. Last year Leon decided to sell off his surplus airplane inventory and put the Aero Commander on ebay. I saw it, had to have it, and made the winning bid. Now the issue was how to get it back to central PA. Fortunately I had two things going for me. One was an old travel trailer that had been stripped to the floor and is what I had been using to transport airplane projects. The other was good friend Tom (Rex) Pryde who is always up for a road trip if airplanes are involved. Tom and I headed west on interstate 80 with the ramshackle trailer in tow. A quick 6 hours later Leon was guiding us into his remote aircraft scrap yard oasis. In a small clearing in the woods of western Ohio sat the Aero Commander fuselage with its tail cut off and the wings just a few feet away. Other parts of Leon's collection were positioned between the trees standing sentinel over the clearing including a twin Beech, Sikorsky helicopter, and P-80 Shooting Star.

That's Leon on the Left and Tom on the right. After a brief pow wow we decided that we could drag the Aero Commander fuselage onto the trailer using Leons mammoth come-a-long. This worked great but the weight of the fuselage did challenge the structural integrity of the old camper floor. At one point I stepped completely through the vinyl and the rotted plywwod, all the way to the ground below. Still it seemed that after a couple of ratchet straps the Aero Commander was reasonably secure so we headed back east. On the way as we re-entered the hiway from a fuel stop we found ourselves in the middle of an Army convoy. I can only imagine that passing motorist might have summized that cuts in defense spending had led the Army to retain equipment long, long after it should.

Restoration

We made it back to PA and unloaded the fuselage in my back yard by tying the fuselage to a tree and driving the trailer out from under it. Yes, I'm "that" neighbor. Every neighborhood has an eccentric individual and I'm the crazy "airplane guy" in mine.

Inside the fuselage the controls were still in place and everything moved. There were even a couple of the original instruments in the panel but it was a real mess. The fuselage had been a cozy home for all sorts of critters over the years where it sat in the woods.

The next weekend Tom and I headed back to Ohio and retrieved the wing. As with the tail, the outer parts of the wing had been cut off and were not included. The inner 17 feet of wing included both engine nacelles and the main landing gear which would have been awesome to keep, but it would have been too wide to tow and my plans were to make the playhouse portable.

So, after a few hours with a reciprocating saw I liberated the center 8 feet of wing. The next trick would be hoisting it on to the fuselage. After some Wile E. Coyote scheming I devised a one man solution.

Using sone 2x4s I stood the wing on end. Then using more 2x4s I rolled the fuselage on its side to mate with the wing. It actually worked! Thank you Acme Engineering!

Now that I had the major pieces together I was in need of a way to make it portable. I looked at several boat trailers but they were either too expensive or not heavy duty enough. Then I came across another camper trailer frame for sale that seemed like it could work.

The frame was big enough, heavy enough, and cheap enough, so I bought it. I then started cutting it apart to rebuild it into a boat trailer shape. I cut off the rails in back of the rear axle to the desired length. I cut the front cross member off and tapered the side rails from the axle forward to the hitch. The rear bumper was repurposed as a heavy duty crossmember to which the fuselage would be attached. I also removed the front axle and traded it for a nice yellow slide that I would use at the back of the fuselage.

After some wire brushing and bright red Rustoleum the trailer started looking pretty good. Using a come-a-long and some planks I was able to get the fuselage positioned where I wanted it on the trailer. I welded vertical mounts from the trailer frame up into the fuselage to secure the front and rear of the airplane. Now it was time to get to work on the fuselage itself.

I had thought about painting the Aero Commander blue and white like Eisenhowers Air Force One, but the kids really liked the Army look, and I was intrigued with the history of 52-6217 so I decided to stick with the original scheme. There were several dents to fix along with a bunch of missing panels to create but it all came together.

I rolled on some black and white Sherwin Williams latex along with some red and yellow for trim. The letters are self stick vinyl from Staples. They didn't have yellow letters so I just spray painted the white ones before I applied them.

The Aero Commander cleaned up pretty well. New fenders, tires, and lights, along with fresh paint made it look like new. I added LED strobe lights to the nose and wing stubs that look really neat at night. The trailer isn't too heavy and tows great but due to the axle position there is quite a bit of tongue weight. A load leveler hitch is needed to keep everything at the proper towing height.

I cleaned and painted the panel and created fake gauges by gluing color prints to 1/4 inch plywood and attaching them behind thin plexiglass. I looked for gauge faces that were interesting and colorful, not necessarily accurate. I still plan to add some LED panel lights and switches for the kids to play with.

I installed car seats that I bought on Craigslist to create a comfortable cabin for pilot and co-pilot. There's even a navagitor seat. After installing fiberglass insulation I paneled the walls and ceiling with 1/4 inch plywood then stained the walls and painted the ceiling. There are LED dome lights and a car battery that powers them as well as the strobes. The plywood flooring is covered with indoor/outdoor carpet.

Looking in from the rear escape hatch you see the sleeping platform. Perfect for a couple of small sleeping bags.

And in the event of an emergency landing you can exit down the slide. The slide easily detaches and stores inside while transporting.

The Aero Commander playhouse has been more fun than I expected. For Halloween I put a Skeleton in it wearing a headset and goggles. It was a big hit with the Trick-Or-Treaters. Santa Claus piloted the airplane adorned with Christmas lights and a couple of Reindeer at Christmas. It's been a big hit where ever I take it and is always full of kids (and adults). My hope is that it will spark an interest in aviation in some of the kids that play in it. Time will tell, but right now the puzzled looks and smiles it brings from passersby is enough.