A particular airplane is worth a certain amount of money. However, when a plane has sentimental value, it’s priceless. This is the story of a Rockport man who had a dream of finding the plane his mother piloted while serving in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) during WWII. He had literally been looking for the plane since he was a child.
Frank McKay found SkyBaby, his mother’s airplane, had it transported to Rockport, and started work on its restoration.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began its assault on the United States - but before the world went crazy with lockdowns, masks, and social distancing – Frank, his wife Barbara, friends, and family celebrated SkyBaby’s 80th birthday.
Since that time, Frank made the decision to donate SkyBaby to the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Museum at McCampbell Porter Airport in Aransas Pass.
“They have a very nice military museum at that airport with exhibits honoring many of our local hero’s,” said Frank. “The Squadron is going to take SkyBaby on as a project for their Cadet Program and restore her to flying condition. The project will be a wonderful learning opportunity for local young people interested in flying.”
Frank’s mother, Marian Palmer Davis, bought the J4A Piper Cub Coupe airplane on March 5, 1940 for $2,300.
Individuals who originally organized and served in the CAP were private pilots. They were not in the military.
“They just wanted to assist the war effort and serve their country,” said Frank. “The J3 version of the plane was very popular, with a production of about 20,000. My mother bought one of only 1,250 J4A models produced. It was a two-seat plane with a side by side configuration, which made it good for training.”
Marian ended up flying SkyBaby on numerous CAP missions in the mountains of West Virginia during World War II. She also used SkyBaby to train young CAP Cadet pilots who would go on to join the active military.
In 1945, when the war was over, Marian reluctantly sold SkyBaby.
But the last page of Marian’s logbook told the simple story of her love of SkyBaby and flying. Written in the margin, in her handwriting, was the heartfelt message:
“Goodbye old friend. This has been the best year of my life.”
Two years later she married and moved to Florida, where Frank was born and grew up.
Frank, 70, recalls his mother, who passed away in 1985, telling him bedtime stories about her exploits flying for the CAP.
Frank’s 36-year career with Schlumberger included 25 years working overseas. During this time there was little opportunity to look for SkyBaby.
The McKays bought their house in Rockport in 2009, renovated it in 2014, and moved here full time after Frank’s second retirement from Hess Corporation in 2018.
With work behind him, thoughts of his mother and SkyBaby became more prevalent.
In late 2019 Frank listened to a podcast about the CAP. He learned that after 70 years of not being recognized, the U.S. Congress had awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to early members of the CAP who supported the war effort on the home front.
“I sent an email to the CAP and asked about my mother’s records,” said Frank. “I also asked about the Congressional Gold Medal, and if she qualified.
“They asked me for some type of validation of her service, and added, ‘don’t get your hopes up.’”
Frank sent two pictures - one of his mother dressed in her CAP uniform, and another of SkyBaby with the CAP logo.
Not thinking that would be enough, he went looking for more documentation of her service.
“My wife remembered an old envelope of my mother’s (we had packed for our move to Rockport), but didn’t remember what was in it.”
They found the envelope and inside were several documents related to his mother’s flying career, including the original invoice for SkyBaby, which contained her tail number (N26730).
“At last, I had something to go on to find her (SkyBaby) after spending most of my life wondering where she was. Until that point, I didn’t know we had the identifying information to track her right there in an envelope,” Frank said.
His mother’s service was finally validated, and her great granddaughter, Lyla Palmer Hohensee, received the Congressional Gold Medal on her behalf in October 2019 in Dallas at the CAP’s annual meeting.
... a different story
Frank logged into the FAA website, and using the tail number, was able to find the plane registration.
“That told me who owned it,” said Frank. “My mother sold it in West Virginia. Then it went to New York, New Jersey, Georgia, and finally Florida.”
Further investigation led to the owner’s address.
“It was owned by a man in Florida who lived just a few miles from where I grew up,” said Frank.
He used multiple sources to try and contact Bill Scott, the man who owned SkyBaby, with no luck.
Finally, Frank wrote him a letter, including a copy of the invoice. A week later SkyBaby’s owner called back and was as thrilled as Frank to learn more about his plane’s remarkable history.
As it turned out, Frank’s family was planning to gather in Florida for Christmas, and he would have passed within a few miles of SkyBaby’s hanger without knowing it. Obviously, plans were changed to include a reunion between family history and its source.
After what seemed like a lifetime, Frank would finally see SkyBaby, the subject of so many bedtime stories.
He and his family made the trip to Florida with great anticipation.
After being together 15 minutes, Frank told Bill, “If you ever want to sell her, I’d love to buy her and restore her.”
Bill had owned the plane for about 10 years. The right wing was intact, but the left wing was heavily damaged.
“He looked at me and said, ‘I’ll sell her to you for the same price your mom paid in 1940 - $2,300!’
“He had a trailer, a son, and some time on his hands. After Christmas they drove SkyBaby to Rockport.
“There’s a very small subculture of people who own one the remaining J4A Piper Cub Coupes,” Frank said. “A couple hundred are still in flying condition.”
With SkyBaby tucked away in his South Rockport garage, Frank soon realized he didn’t know much about remodeling a plane.
“I did a lot of research trying to learn how to put her back together,” he said. “In that process I got ahold of a man called the Cub Doctor. He had original documents from Piper Aircraft that listed all the details about the plane.”
SkyBaby was meant to be in Frank’s possession. Research showed she came off the production line on his birth date - exactly 11 years before he was born.
Restoring a vintage airplane is a long process for an individual, sometimes taking a decade. Frank soon realized that a team effort was needed.
With that in mind he donated SkyBaby to the CAF Museum at McCampbell Porter Airport. He will also be involved in the work, but CAF has expertise and folks with invaluable experience in restoring vintage airplanes.
Frank’s travel down memory lane won’t be all for naught. He’s not a pilot, but this experience led him to work toward obtaining his private pilot’s license.
He might not finish his original plan to remodel SkyBaby by himself, but one day he will be a pilot and take SkyBaby up into the clouds again.
Just like his mother.