Radial Engines, Ltd. restores WWII planes
The sky over Edmond often seems filled with aircraft — giants from nearby Tinker Air Force Base lumbering their way through maneuvers, airliners whirring and purring as they descend to Will Rogers World Airport, small private planes slowly droning from horizon to horizon, and occasionally, a news helicopter thwacking its way through the air.
But every once in a while, greeting the air is a different kind of drone — something throatier, more percussive, more rhythmic in tone than the monotone hum of modern small planes. It sounds something like the planes in World War II movies.
Sure enough, flying through the sky is a World War II-era biplane. Maybe a Stearman, a Waco, or something like that. But it’s old, a rare sight and a unique sound.
So why is it over Edmond?
While it could be here for an airshow, fly-in, or some other aircraft-related event, there’s a good possibility it’s on its way to or from Higley Field, a small private airstrip just north of western Edmond.
Complete with a 1,600-foot-long grass strip, a World War II-era tower and beacon, and a 44,000 square foot hangar, Higley Field happens to be home to one of only two repair centers in the world for small World War II-era radial engines.
“I would say that primarily the airplanes that are flying here are Cessna 195s, Stearmans and all different flavors of Wacos,” said Steve Curry, 68, the founder and owner Radial Engines, Ltd.
Since its beginning nearly four decades ago, the business has overhauled about 1,300 radial engines, the oldest of these aircraft powerplants hailing from 1926 and the latest from 1945. They service planes all over the world.
In fact, according to Curry, nearly a third of his business is overseas.
“We have lots of customers in Europe, a bunch in England, Australia and South Africa. We’ve got some in Japan and South America,” he said, adding how a year ago his son, an aircraft mechanic and pilot, spent time in Israel working on a plane and often travels around the world working on client aircraft.
But what got Curry into the business was not necessarily a passion for aviation, but rather a desire to build. Before founding Radial Engines, Ltd., Curry had already “been around the block” in his professional life, working as a sandwich delivery driver, an automotive mechanic, a school teacher, and a glass shop laborer. But it was a hobby that in 1981, just liked one of his engines, roared to life, and became what would be a four-decade-long career.
From a hobby to a hangar
A Nevada native, he and his family had moved to the Oklahoma City area. He had finished restoring a 1950 Ford Coupe when he thought it time to sell the classic and start a new project.
“I thought an airplane project would be interesting and so I put the ’50 Ford up for sale or trade to hopefully trade for an airplane project — an old airplane,” recounted Curry. He then received an offer from someone in Kansas who wanted to trade him a 1942 Stearman project.
“So I got the Stearman back down here. The only thing I wasn’t really intimidated by was the engine because I thought, ‘It’s a radial engine, but it’s just an internal combustion engine — so let’s look at that,'” said Curry, saying he promptly tore apart the engine, overhauled it and test ran it.
“That really isn’t the wisest way to do it with an airplane because then you’ve got an overhauled engine, it’s just going to sit there for seven years while you do all the rest of the stuff on the plane,” he said. He then sold the engine, figuring with all the other parts he had, he could build another engine if needed.
With that, word spread he had repaired an engine. Soon people began contacting him, asking if he would rebuild their engines.
“Pretty soon I thought, ‘You know? This is feels a lot like a business,'” recounted Curry, saying he sold the Stearman unfinished and used the money to start his business. “So I hung out my shingle and all of a sudden I had more work than I knew what to do with.”
Demand in a vacuum
Curry explained the reason for the demand was that unbeknownst to him at the time. During the late 70s and early 80s, many big overhaul shops in the United States decided to go out of business as they deemed there was no longer any future in small radial engines.
“I just happened to step into that vacuum,” he said. “There wasn’t enough business to have 100-man shop like those places were, but there was certainly enough to keep me busy and so that’s when I began.”
Curry said he hired his first employee wondering how he was going to pay him. Now, a couple of moves and 40 years later, not only does he nearly 20 employees, but he also has a two-and-a-half-year backlog of work.
“It’s really a hobby that got out of control and so here we are now.”
Not only has the business expanded, but it has also spun off two other businesses to form three separate companies, all based right here in central Oklahoma.
“We have Radial Engines, Ltd. which is the repair station here. We have Vintage Aero Parts, which is our parts department … and then our other business is ADA Manufacturing, which that’s the manufacturing arm of our business.”
Curry said though he has a huge inventory of engine parts left over from World War II, some parts he runs out of. These parts they produce in house and what they can’t do, like chroming cylinders and forging, they outsource to Tulsa and southern California, respectively.
While one might think sourcing labor for overhauling engines might be difficult and that workers would need to be mechanically inclined, Curry said it simply isn’t so.
“To tell you the truth, I’m not sure that mechanically inclined is a real thing,” said Curry. “I really think if somebody is faithful and willing to learn, they can learn these things. I think when people say well ‘I’m not mechanically inclined,’ what they’re really saying is ‘I haven’t been taught these things.’’’
Curry said among those working in the shop are an ex-oilfield worker, an ex-farmer, an ex-high school drama teacher, an autobody shop worker, an ex-trail guide, and an ex-Taco Bell worker.
“You know these are all just people that came in really knowing nothing about aviation or about antique aviation and then we just train them,” he explained, saying he has set up a division of labor system which assigns different tasks to different people, all personnel though working together to overhaul an engine.
When an engine project arrives, specific mechanics tear it down. Others clean its parts. Others inspect them for defects or wear. Others paint them. Still others work in the machine shop and others, work with magnetos, wire harnesses, and so on down the line until the engine is reassembled, tested, and running.
These individuals are cross-trained and able to move to other positions if they like, he said.
“We’ve been able to find people that really love this (work) and are willing to take a drive out to the country every day,” said Curry, adding how during the recent ice storm when the shop lost power, one worker still drove up and worked by flashlight.
“He comes to us from Moore every day. Ice, snow — it doesn’t matter,” said Curry.
“I’ve got guys here that have been here for 30 years and we do have a little bit of turnover. But for the most part, once somebody hires on, they tend to stay. “
The future of the business
Curry said though the market continues to dwindle as fewer people are interested in World War II-era aviation, so have the number of shops — a trend that should protect his business for years to come.
He said when he got into the business, there were ten other small shops like his.
“That number has diminished, so it’s consolidated down so that there are only two of us left.”
Curry said he is beginning to take more of a back seat in the business. His son, Caleb, is taking more of the lead. That gives Curry time to work on other projects like building tables from old radial engine parts and building a radial engine-powered 1930s-style wood-bodied roadster.
“It’ll be a big deal. It’ll do the Jay Leno circuit and all that kind of stuff. But that’s kind of fun too that now I’m not locked here in front of my computer every day.”
Running the business and overhauling antique aircraft engines has always been close to his heart. It powers him just as much as his engines power planes.
“Somebody asked me once, ‘Have you ever thought about retiring?’ and I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ve thought about retiring.’ So, okay, I’m imagining the first day of retirement. What am I going to do? I’m going to go to the airport.’ You know?” he said. “It’s a passion and I love doing this.”
He said while everything about the business isn’t fun, FAA paperwork, occasional employee issues, and the irregular engine repair job that costs more than it’s worth, it’s just business and he still enjoys it.
“For the most part, the aviation folks are really good folks and bunch of interesting people that are as passionate about it as I am. I enjoy that. I like the crew that we have — It’s a great bunch of guys to work with and you know everybody’s going to be doing something. This is just a great thing to do and we’re preserving history and we’re giving people an experience.”
Planes powered by radial engines are like time machines, Curry explained.
“It’s like (people) can step into one of these airplanes with one of our engines and they can go out and experience what it was like in 1925 when pilots were actually aviators, when you had to pull this thing through before you could start it and you’ve got to do all these little extra things that they had to do when Lindbergh was getting ready to cross the Atlantic.”
“So I really enjoy the concept that we really are enabling a whole other generation to experience something that hasn’t been seen for 80 or 90 years. So, yeah, it’s fun.”
Curry said a big lesson was to protect the core business and not to bite off more than you can chew, even when it seems to relate to your business.
“Don’t assume that you know that because you’ve been successful at one thing that you can automatically transfer that success,” he said, explaining that he learned this the hard way.
“We’ve done that a couple of times. We’ve taken on things that we never should’ve taken on because they were great deals and they were, you know, all this. But it hurt our core business because we spent so much time and so much energy on this other thing that was related to our core business. But it wasn’t the core business.”
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About Thomas Berger
Thomas Berger is the owner of Ciskus Creative, an Edmond-based creative agency focused on creating marketing content for small and medium-sized businesses.
Prior to starting his own company, he worked as the communications/marketing specialist for an Oklahoma City-based office technology company. Former to coming to the Oklahoma City area, he had worked as a career journalist for more than a decade — initially reporting for several newspapers in western North Carolina and northeastern Oklahoma and later as a multimedia journalist for KJRH Channel 2 in Tulsa.
Thomas has lived in Edmond with his wife Alison since 2013. He has a passion for traveling, photography, learning languages, landscaping and coffee roasting. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Western Carolina University.