Enthusiasts seek flight at Corvair College

  • Kevin Purtee, Spencer Rice and Earl Brown IV work together on Brown’s Corvair engine during last weekend’s 8th Annual Barnwell County Corvair College held at the Barnwell County Airport.

“Hi,” says Chris Pryce, extending his hand after being introduced. He grins, then pulls his hand bank and apologizes as he realizes his hand is slick with machine oil.

Pryce is just like nearly 80 other men in one of the hangers of the Barnwell County Airport. In teams of three and four, they are all busy working on engines. Not just any airplane engine – Corvair engines.

General Motors produced nearly 1.7 million Corvair engines between 1960 and 1969, said P.F. Beck of Barnwell.

These are air-cooled 6-cylinder engines that weigh only about 225 pounds.

While the cars are no longer in production, their engines are getting new life – in “homemade” or “experimental” aircraft.

Each year, enthusiasts of these engines hold a Corvair College, coming together to rebuild their engines and test them before installation into aircraft.

The 8th Annual Barnwell County Corvair College was held Friday-Sunday, March 10-12 at the Barnwell County Airport.

“The participant who has come the furthest so far is Spencer Rice of Portland, Oregon – that’s 2,789 miles,” said Beck Friday afternoon. “We are expecting a gentleman from London, England, but he hasn’t arrived yet.”

Pryce, 32, is a captain in the U.S. Air Force who pilots KC10 refueling planes and has been deployed six times to the Middle East.

“This is my vacation,” said Pryce. “I grew up with my dad working on airplanes. I always wanted to build one when I grew up and found out about Corvairs. I met Bob Dewenter and came here. This is my sixth one. We ran my engine last year.”

Bob Dewenter, 53, of Ohio, is also busy working on the engine on the table as is Terry Laubert, 72, of Dayton, Ohio and Bruce Dove, 79, of Alaska.

They say the Corvair engine is the favorite “because it is easy to build and affordable.”

“Plus, there’s nothing like getting a rat-infested engine from some old barn, pulling it out, cleaning it up and putting it into an airplane,” said Pryce. “It’s a thrill.”

Does he trust a rebuilt car engine in his plane? “I have more faith in my engine that the rest of the plane. I know my engine is going to work.”

An old, dirty, rusty engine sits on the hanger floor next to one of the other tables. On the table is an engine that has been taken apart, its pieces being cleaned with caring, if oily, hands.

Kevin Purtee, 55, of Austin, Texas, Earl Brown IV, 54, of Downingtown, Pennsylvania, and 18-year-old Spencer Rice are working on Brown’s motor. “We are closing the case,” explained Brown. It’s the heart of the thing.”

Purtee and his wife host the Texas Corvair College. “I come here to hang out with them.”

Purtee owns a Pietenpol Air Camper, a 1920’s airplane designed by Bruner Pietenpol.

“When I was 9-years-old, my dad said, ‘People can build airplane engines in their garage.’ I was hooked.”

Rice said he started rebuilding engines when he was 13-years-old. “I started looking for engine options to build. I got to know these guys.”

Brown said he got hooked with airplanes first flying radio-controlled plane models. I met Kevin and one thing led to another.”

Each man respects the skills of the others while adding his knowledge and ideas.

At each table the men work on the engines like bees over honeycomb.

Just outside, an engine sits on a stand, its owner, Lucan Cassella, looking a bit nervous. Next to him is William Wynne of Green Cove Springs, Florida. P.F. Beck describes Wynn as “not only an expert but THE world expert” on Corvair engines. Wynne checks a few things and then nods his head.

The propeller starts spinning as the engine comes to life for the first time. It hums in perfect throttle.

Wynne shakes the hand of Cassella who smiles like a new father.

Standing around them are other Corvair enthusiasts, some with video cameras recording the test.

“They’ll run the engine for 30 minutes – that’s the minimum test time,” explains Beck.

“I built my engine about 12 years ago,” said Beck who serves as chairman of the Barnwell County Airport Commission and is one of the hosts of the Corvair College.

Don Harper, county councilman and co-host, also watches as the engine is tested. “My dad flew airplanes,” said Harper. “I learned to fly in 1973, built my first airplane in 2005 and my second one in 2012.”

Harper’s first plane is a Pienpol, a favorite among the pilots building their own planes.

The participants of the Corvair College worked for three days at the Barnwell County Airport on their engines. They stayed in local hotels and inns or slept in campers they parked at the airport. “A few are sleeping in the terminal,” said Beck.

“This is a big deal for Barnwell County,” said Beck. Some have brought their spouses and families. They are shopping and eating here.”

During the weekend, the Experimental Aircraft Association presented the Barnwell County Airport with a plaque for the opportunity of its members of “pursue their passion”.

While a few will be taking home newly rebuilt airplane engines, all will have the souvenir of the comradeship built while working on Corvairs.