A few years ago, I strolled a back alley in Volterra, Italy, and stumbled upon a cluttered workshop where craftsmen were sculpting large chunks of alabaster into gorgeous works of art. Every surface wore a light coating of fine alabaster dust probably dating back to the 16th century. The worn hand tools and the techniques the artisans were using looked as if they had been passed down through the generations—relics from a time when the elders taught their children the family trade and those children taught their children.
The passing of an artisan’s skills from one generation to the next has always been a time-honored tradition meant to ensure that a family’s legacy is preserved far into the future. This philosophy is very much intact at Felts Field (KSFF) in Spokane, Washington, where Addison Pemberton is passing not only the skills, techniques and passion for restoring golden-age antique airplanes down to his son Ryan Pemberton, but also the valuable life lessons that assure success for the next generation.
Anyone with an interest in antique aircraft from aviation’s golden age has most likely seen the work of Pemberton and Sons Aviation at a museum or an airshow. The most visible is the 1928 Boeing 40C that the Pembertons restored into what many believe is the most beautiful example of a restored airplane of the era. The 40C is now owned by the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum in Hood River, Oregon. The family is currently working on their 21st rebuild or full restoration, a 1930 Travel Air 4000.
The skills needed to take nothing more than a data plate and a basket of reclaimed parts and turn it into a gorgeous flying museum piece have not changed from the early days of aviation. The masters that can complete this feat of incredible determination are a rare breed, estimated by Addison to be only about 100 in the US. While many people can build airplanes, it takes a multitalented genius to break these huge, yearslong projects into bite-size pieces.
The skills required to bring golden-age airplanes back to life are not taught in any school; they have to be hard-wired into a person’s soul. Artisans like Addison and Ryan have had their talents nurtured from a very young age. Both of these Pembertons were shop kids lucky enough to have elders who would teach basic safety around power tools and then stand back and let a child’s imagination drive the train.
“My father was an inventor, and we’ve owned a manufacturing company my whole life,” Addison says, “so I grew up in the machine shop and got handed an acetylene torch when I was 8 years old and told to not burn the building down. Myself and my buddies had free run of the milling machines and lathes and, of course, built all sorts of go-karts and minibikes. My father’s attitude was to treat us as adults, which instilled a great deal of confidence in us as young boys. But with the freedom in the shop came the responsibilities to learn correct techniques and practice safety.”
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Years later, after Addison had moved Scanivalve—the family business—to Spokane, he brought his son Ryan in the shop at an early age. “One of the greatest things that my dad did for me was to treat me like I was capable of learning and developing,” Ryan explains. “He got that from my grandfather, and I hope to treat my kids the same way. I grew up in a shop where I had two experienced, knowledgeable guys—my dad and my grandfather—who were there to invest in me and allow me to try my hand at anything. I was running a lathe making parts when I was 11 years old, not because I was a wonder child but because my grandfather had the patience and the willingness to teach me proper techniques. When I was 13 years old, my dad supplied me with a TIG welding torch and all the equipment. There was never a question if I would be involved in aviation; it was just a question of what my involvement would look like.”
Addison explains that there wasn’t a particular time when the torch was passed to Ryan—it was a purely natural progression. “Literally from the time he could walk, Ryan grew up watching the shop environment. In high school, he began to show a keen interest in working with metal, so we bought him an English wheel…his skills on compound-metal work and welding surpass me these days.”
Today, Pemberton and Sons is comprised of Addison and Ryan, plus Addison’s wife, Wendy, son Jay and a team of volunteers. “I call Wendy my ‘cover girl,’” Addison says. “She does all our fabric work and is well-versed in all the covering processes. Jay is a 14,000-hour pilot for a major cargo airline but helps us with assembly and maintenance, plus flying everything we have, including the 40C at WAAAM.”
Addison and Ryan agree that within each restoration project, there are a number of challenges that must be overcome. “The thing I like about restoring golden-age antique airplanes is that, in so many cases, you can’t just call an 800 number and give them a credit card and have the part show up,” Addison says. “We’ve got to build the part from scratch, which means going back and putting ourselves in the original designer’s head. And oftentimes we’ve got to come up with tooling to do so. That is the challenge we really enjoy, and I am now able to give my son Ryan a set of drawings from the 1920s, and he can make that part equal to or better than new.”
As this article was being written, Ryan was flying the family’s trusty Cessna 185 to the Antique Airplane Association’s annual fly-in held in Blakesburg, Iowa. Addison uses this event as a gauge for what the future holds regarding the restoration and preservation of golden-age airplanes. “If you go to Blakesburg, you’ll see a lot of gray-haired guys, but you’ll also see a lot of 20-somethings that are interested in learning the craft. Because the majority of the people doing this work are more than happy to pass on what they know to the next generation, I feel confident that the skills required to keep the old stuff flying will not be lost,” Addison says.
This story appeared in the December 2020 issue of Flying Magazine