|By Carmelo Turdo|
Big River Aviation, along with contributors from the Midwest Aviation community, recently completed the restoration of a twin-engine Piper Geronimo for use in the mission field. Manos de Compasion (Hands of Compassion), a children’s home ministry located near the Bay of Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala, received the aircraft in early February to better meet the daily needs of the over fifty children receiving foster care in a region lacking adequate ground transportation and infrastructure. In Part One and Part Two of this series, we reported on the use of aviation at Manos de Compasion and how St. Louis-based Big River Aviation became involved with the restoration to flight of the ministry’s latest aircraft. In Part Three, we took a detailed look at the aircraft restoration project as told by those who were directly involved. Here in Part Four, we conclude our story with coverage of the final month of maintenance and the flight from St. Louis to Guatemala.
We backtrack into the previous portion of the story, in November and December, when some additional items remained to be adjusted before the Geronimo was ready for delivery to Guatemala. The need to do more repairs to the aircraft, the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and continuous waves of marginal weather between St. Louis and Texas delayed progress further. More work on the propeller, fuel system and radio were completed, and the weather finally began to cooperate as February approached.
Steve Long, of One Spirit Aviation and avionics specialist on some Big River Aviation aircraft projects, brings us up to this portion of the story. “Finally, the day came when the aircraft was ready to fly. The aircraft had been sitting for a couple of years, so the condition of the engines was unknown to us up to this point. Nick Turk offered to be our evaluation pilot and proceeded to get the veteran aircraft in the air. One of the advantages of an aluminum aircraft is that aluminum doesn’t rust like the steel used in our cars. When an aircraft is well maintained, the life expectancy is unlimited as long as the aluminum maintains its strength. So, a 60-year old airplane can still serve well in the mission field. After several months of test flying and repairing the problems, the aircraft was ready for Tom and Dave from Hands of Compassion to get familiar with it. The aircraft went through another three weeks of flying to get it ready to make the flight between St. Louis and Guatemala.”
Dave Reichard, Director of Manos de Compasion, posted this update to the ministry’s Facebook page on December 3, 2019. “Tom and I went up to St. Louis to bring the plane back a few weeks ago. We were hoping to return with the plane this trip, but we ended up finding a number of things that needed to get repaired before we could bring it down. We did a number of test flights and were able to finish up a lot on the plane. We ended up coming home on Thanksgiving Day to be with the family…The mechanics are working on the plane now and will be doing final test flights later this week. They will let us know when we can come get the plane.”
Nick Turk, the evaluation pilot and advisor to the project since the beginning, briefly reviewed the process for The Aero Experience. “Many businesses, organizations and people contributed parts, services, advice, time, money and effort for the restoration of Piper Geronimo N101UA for Manos de Compasion. The Geronimo sat in a hangar in rural Spring Hill, Louisiana and it had not flown in many years. Paul Voorhees, the owner of Big River Aviation, provided the maintenance expertise to restore the plane to flying condition. On many trips to Louisiana, and over a two year period, his staff and other volunteers made the plane flyable again. It arrived in St. Louis in April of 2019 where the greater work of restoring the plane could be accomplished in the West Terminal Hangar at St. Louis Downtown Airport.
“Dave Reichard and Tom Stukenberg from Manos de Campasion arrived in St. Louis in early 2020 to help complete the final repairs and fly the plane…Tom had owned a Geronimo in the past and was quite comfortable and happy with the plane. As the St. Louis effort to restore the Geronimo came to a close, their adventure to fly the plane back home to Guatemala began.”
And then there was the weather. Low clouds hung over the St. Louis area and points south, and numerous discussions were held among Nick Turk, Dave Reichard and Tom Stukenberg about the weather conditions and the best departure date. As the final days of January came to a close, and more last-minute maintenance items were completed on the aircraft, we were able to conduct more interviews and gather more photos and video for this series and future publications. But we could all feel that it was time to get the aircraft safely to the field where it could be used effectively at the Manos de Compasion children’s home.
“As soon as this weather clears out, we’re heading south,” Dave Reichard told The Aero Experience during our January 31 interview. “We’re going to get down to Texas, a straight flight that’s about seven hours. We will probably stop about halfway to check the plane…and then we’ll continue down to McAllen, Texas. Then we have to do an APIS for the U.S. and an APIS for Mexico. Then we’ll do our best to overfly Mexico – our hope is to overfly it. The only thing that would stop us would be weather or some sort of mechanical problems. But our plan is to overfly Mexico from McAllen straight to Guatemala City. And then from there we’ll have to park it and get our paperwork squared away with the Guatemalan Government and then we can take it to our strip that’s right next to our house, to the ministry.”
The flight was set for the morning of February 1, and the aircraft was packed and ready for engine start at 8:00 A.M. Dave and Tom had their first passenger on board, Mynor from Manos de Compasion, who accompanied them on the commercial flight to St. Louis on this trip. Taxi out of Big River Aviation and onto the apron for the engine run-up went routinely, and takeoff was accomplished at about 8:30 A.M. About thirty minutes later, they returned to land at St. Louis Downtown Airport after experiencing more problems with radio communications. The plane was unpacked and diagnostics were performed. It was determined that a higher grade of coax cable was needed to reduce signal bleed, and a later test flight confirmed that the problem was solved.
The delivery flight was scheduled for the next day, and the trio was again performing their pre-takeoff engine run-ups at 9:00 A.M. This time, the takeoff went without a hitch, and the Geronimo was on its way south. The aircraft flew to McAllen, TX and the fuel-feed nemesis emerged again. It was remedied, and the flight resumed. A landing in Mexico for fuel could not be avoided, and they took off soon thereafter for Guatemala City. They arrived in late afternoon on February 4, and returned to the children’s home later by land route. Delivery of the aircraft to the Manos de Compasion airstrip was accomplished on February 27 following the completion of the legal and administrative paperwork. The first flight in support of the ministry’s residents occurred earlier this week.
Manos de Compasion provided these views of the flight from St. Louis to Guatemala, including the eventual reception at the children's home airstrip:
Paul Voorhees, Owner of Big River Aviation, posted this message following the arrival of the aircraft at the Manos de Compasion airstrip. “Mission accomplished! Thanks to all that helped get this ready for service. Steve Long, Kevin Hammon, Nicholas Turk, Wayde Spenner, Brandon Schnicker, Mike Read, Nelson Miller, Trinity Propeller, Wings of Hope and anyone else that helped the Big River Aviation team! I look forward to helping Dave Reichard and Tom and Susan Stukenberg keep this plane in service!"
Steve Long expressed his satisfaction with the deployment of the aircraft and commitment to supporting the work of Manos de Compasion. “Tom and Dave took off February 2 to start a new chapter in the life of this special service airplane. We know from experience an aging aircraft will have issues that will require a mechanic’s touch, and this team of professionals stands ready to make a house call if necessary. Whenever Tom or Dave makes a telephone call to one of us, we immediately know who it is by the sounds of kids, birds, dogs and other tropical sounds - the sounds of life - that let us know we made a small difference in the lives of people we may never meet. What an honor!”
Dave Reichard continued with this message following the flight. “We want to give a HUGE thanks to the mechanics at Big River Aviation, and of course Paul Voorhees, Owner, head mechanic, and pilot of Big River Aviation. He has volunteered so much of this time, tools, parts, and hanger space to get our plane done. The work they do is amazing. Very thorough and always professional.
“Another HUGE thanks to Steve Long from One Spirit Engineering. Steve has volunteered hundreds of hours working on rewiring, avionics installations, and other repairs on the plane. Steve was the Hangar Director for Wings of Hope. His experience in prepping planes for field work has been priceless.
"A BIG thanks to Nick Turk, owner of Turk Aviation, LLC. Nicholas Turk has been instrumental in keeping this project organized and rolling. He also is our safety pilot for our test flights. His experience in aviation has been very valuable.
“A thanks to Trinity Propeller shop in AR. The great people there stood behind their work 100%. We called Johnny on the Monday morning before Thanksgiving. By Tuesday afternoon Tom was on his way home with the propeller ready to go! And they paid for the hotel stay! All at no cost.
“Also a big thanks to Carmelo Turdo with The Aero Experience. He has been taking great photos and will be writing a few articles about us.”
The Aero Experience was privileged to cover the Piper Geronimo project from St. Louis for Big River Aviation and Manos de Compasion, and we will post follow-up stories periodically. We hope that you will support the great work of Manos de Compasion by contributing directly to their ministry. Please consider visiting their website and making a generous donation to support their work as a foster family to these beautiful and wonderful children!