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Durango man shares his love for restoring classic airplanes

Rob Flanner spends months restoring planes in hangar at airport
Rob Flannery works on his 1947 Luscombe 8A airplane May 22 in his hangar at the Durango-La Plata County Airport. Flannery has been active in the aviation community, helping youths learn how to fly and taking them on their first flights. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Jun 12, 2024
Pilot shares story behind 2017 emergency landing near Kennebec Cafe in Hesperus

Self-proclaimed “gear head” Rob Flannery has a small obsession with airplanes.

But it’s not just any plane. He specializes in flying and restoring Luscombe aircrafts. The two-seated, single-engine planes were popular during the 1930s and 1940s, most notably used for civilian aircraft training.

The 76-year-old has spent most of his life tinkering with engines, riding motorcycles and racing Formula-1 cars. But nothing gave him quite the same thrill as soaring through the skies, thousands of feet above the ground.

“I was a motorcycle nut and was a wrench (motorcycle mechanic) and a racer,” Flannery said. “I really knew my way with motorcycles and rebuilding engines. But to move to an airplane, it's a whole different animal.”

Rob Flannery rebuilds Luscombe airplanes in his hangar at the Durango-La Plata County Airport. He says he enjoys the history and simplicity of the aircraft. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

There’s no transmission in an airplane, and understanding how the engine operates the propeller was a different game too, he said.

Flannery often searches for people selling old, beat-up Luscombe planes. Usually, those with an interest in the brand can find sellers at aviation shows. He then spends about a year restoring each aircraft and painting them in his airplane hangar located at the Durango-La Plata County Airport.

Inside his hangar, which is comparable in size to a two-door garage that is two-stories tall, old Luscombe wings hang from the ceiling. In the center of the room sits the fuselage for his 8A Luscombe fixed-wing plane, which he emergency landed in 2017 near Kennebec Café west of Durango.

The 85-horse power motor that Rob Flannery took out of his Luscombe airplane. Luscombe airplanes are single-engine, two-seated planes. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Rob Flannery has sanded off all the paint of his 1947 Luscombe 8A that he is restoring at the Durango-La Plata County Airport. Flannery sands the planes before taking them into his paint booth in a separate room inside his hangar. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Along a mantel in the hangar, plaques from aviation shows display the different type of awards his planes have won.

He normally purchases the old, rundown aircrafts for about $12,000. By comparison, the planes can fetch up to $165,000 in mint condition.

But restoration is not cheap.

Flannery spends tens of thousands of dollars restoring the planes. For him, it is a labor of love, not a get-rich-quick scheme.

One of the most expensive aspects of restoration is painting the aircraft, which can cost up to $40,000. But by doing it himself and using automotive paint, he can complete the job for about $2,000.

At one end of the hangar is a room dedicated to painting. Inside, white walls surround a rack where Flannery places each panel for painting. The racks, which look like gurneys, are on wheels so Flannery can roll pieces in and out of the room. He then painstakingly paints each panel by hand.

The paint room in Rob Flannery’s hangar at the Durango-La Plata County Airport. He uses automotive paint on his aircrafts. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

To most, it may seem like an expensive hobby. But he compares it to the cost of owning a motorcycle.

And being a private pilot has its benefits, he says.

Often, private pilots must pay landing fees, he said. But the fees are usually waived for small planes. He must still pay for services, like refueling.

“There are airports all over the country, and I can go to them to use them for free,” he said. “What a bargain.”

The Luscombe planes use an 85-horsepower engine and generally reach speeds of 145 mph. Flannery said it can be tricky to find parts for old planes such as Luscombes. Because the plane is out of production, Flannery must find parts through third-party sellers.

However, as an owner-operator, Flannery can also manufacture parts as long as they are comparable to the original. The parts must be approved by the FAA in order to be used. That means Flannery must submit paperwork and have an inspector evaluate his restored planes to make sure they are safe.

Rob Flannery shows the cockpit of his 1947 Luscombe 8A that he is currently restoring in his hangar at the Durango-La Plata County Airport. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Manufacturing his own parts can be significantly cheaper, because finding parts is not always easy.

Flannery’s interest in the Luscombe derives from its simplicity and history.

Scraps of different materials can be seen throughout the hangar. While restoration is impressive, he says he wishes he was smart enough to build a plane from scratch.

Flannery thought about purchasing a kit that would allow him to build a Luscombe from scratch, but the thought of it taking two to three years to complete deterred him.

“Instead, I bought a beat up old ‘weezer’ for $12,000 and spent my time restoring it and had a ball,” he said. “It gets the same gas mileage as my Jeep.”

Rob Flannery with his 1947 Luscombe 8A that he is restoring. It is the same plane that he emergency landed near the Kennebec Cafe in October 2017. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Flannery is a proponent of young people learning to fly. Through the Experimental Aviation Association, Flannery has helped teach 152 students how to fly.

“Part of the program is that we get a chance to fly kids, between the ages of 9 and 14, and give them their first airplane ride,” he said.

Flannery will take kids up in his airplane and will let them take over the controls once the aircraft is airborne.

He said once the plane is in the air, flying is simple. He said young girls are often the most fearless when they take their first flight.

“I remember this little 9-year-old girl. I couldn't get the controls back from her. (She was) flying like an angel,” he said.

The hardest part is landing. It would be easy if there were no wind, he said, but there is always wind. That’s why pilots spend a considerable amount of time learning how to make an emergency landing.

Rob Flannery’s hangar at the Durango-La Plata County Airport. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Flannery put those skills to the test in 2017 when he made an emergency landing near Kennebec Café west of Durango. He was able to set the plane down safely on a county road after his engine stalled.

Flannery remembers when he first started flying in the early 1990s.

He began with gliders in Boulder. As part of his first flight, he had to stall the glider at 100 feet. Even though gliders do not have engines, pilots still have the ability to stall a glider.

An award in Rob Flannerys hangar where he restores Luscombe airplanes on May 22, at the Durango-La Plata County Airport. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

It is achieved by bringing the control stick progressively further back, slowing the speed and increasing the angle of attack of the wing until the stall occurs.

He ended up crashing the glider, resulting in him tearing one of his quadriceps.

“I decided that it was dangerous. And ever since then I thought it’d be a lot safer to fly an airplane with a motor on it,” he said.

While his original dream was to become a professional race car driver, he says nothing beats flying.

“You don't have to be your nose and throat surgeon to fly,” he said. “I mean, it (the Luscombe) uses auto gas if I choose. And it's the same as having a newer Harley-Davidson. What would you rather have?”


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