June 20, 2011
Gene Breiner got a little choked up when he handed over his 1929 Fleet Model 2 to the National Air and Space Museum at “Become a Pilot” Day on Saturday. He dedicated it to “all the people who learned to fly in her, and all the people I took for their first and last airplane rides in her.” In the first category, that would be hundreds.
The Fleet was the first aircraft designed to be a civilian trainer. That’s why Breiner’s Fleet, one of six Model 2’s remaining, earned a place at the Museum. This particular airplane was used in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, a U.S. Government effort begun in 1938 with the stated purpose of boosting general aviation. (An unstated purpose was to boost the number of U.S. pilots as war brewed in Europe.)
One of the students who learned to fly in Breiner’s Fleet was on hand for Saturday’s ceremony. In fact, 16-year-old Chet Machamer soloed the airplane that very morning. With his airline-pilot dad along, he flew it from Bermudian Valley Airpark in East Berlin, Pennsylvania, to Frederick, Maryland, where Breiner took over and flew, also with John Machamer, the last leg to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport in Virginia.
Machamer had already flown the long solo trip required for his pilot’s license in a J-2 Cub, but he preferred flying the Fleet. “The J2 is only 36 horsepower,” his dad explained. “He always complains that he can’t keep up with the big trucks on the highway.”
What did it feel like to solo in the Fleet? Chet, whose dad is also his flight instructor, said, “It was definitely different with a lot less weight.” His dad, the weight, replied, “That’s my son.”
We’ll have more about the Fleet in our September issue—including the story of how Breiner found and restored it. Pretty nice that on its last day of flying, the airplane did what it was invented to do: Help a novice rack up flying time on the way to becoming a pilot.