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The Possibilities in the Impossible
Nanette Malher

Nestled among the corn and soybean fields off of exit 184 on Illinois Interstate 57 lies the quaint Midwestern town of Mattoon. As noisy vehicles cut hurried paths across the quiet, unassuming plains, few think twice about Mattoon or the people there; it's just another patch of buildings in a long line of farm towns that dot the flat, open countryside. But take a magnifying glass to any small town and you'll find a little mystery, excitement and the special magic that is the key ingredient to America's existence . . . people doing what seems to be "the impossible."

It all started in 1995, when Mattoon residient and business-owner Bill Rasmussen saw an advertisement about an airplane that was for sale--a 1929 Golden Eagle Chief. Bill is a pilot and likes restoring vintage airplanes. As a boy, he used to watch people do practice emergency approaches in Cubs in the field behind his house. His father was a pilot, and when Bill got out of college and started working, he obtained his private pilot's license in his father's Arrow. After grad school, Bill bought a J-3 Cub "basket case," as he calls it, for $500. He spent five years restoring it and has been flying it since 1987.

The Golden Eagle wasn't in the best shape, but it was one of only two known to be in existence. Bill felt like it was just the ticket for a new and exciting project. He sent his friend Earl Adkisson, who is an aircraft inspector, or I.A., to Washington State to have a look. After hearing Earl's report on the plane's condition, Bill decided to buy the Golden Eagle from Warren Gardner of Cheney, Washington. Warren had saved it from the scrap heap some years prior; he had fallen in love with the airplane as a child, eventually purchased it in 1954, rebuilt the wings and recovered it. Earl loaded it onto a trailer behind his truck and hauled it back to Illinois.

Bill had the much-appreciated help and enthusiasm of Earl and their mutual friends Mike Vaughan, Greg Rhoads and Giles Henderson as they began the huge task of getting the Golden Eagle back to her original state. "They were the experts, and I was the hired hand," Bill said. The engine was rebuilt in 1995, and Bill started on the airframe in 1999. He spent as much of his spare time as possible in the hangar at Mattoon's Coles County Airport. There were days when he questioned his decision to take on such a project, and he began to wonder if he'd have the stamina to complete the job. "When my wife was six months pregnant, she helped me rotate the fuselage when it was in our garage," Bill said. "I gave her the light end."

One day someone mentioned that a famous aviatrix named Bobbi Trout had flown a Golden Eagle. Bill recalled that he had a book about Bobbi in his possession. He hunted through his belongings and eventually found it: Just Plane Crazy, a biography of Bobbi Trout. In 1929, Bobbi had done what had seemed to be the impossible at the time--she shattered the 12,747-foot altitude record for light-class aircraft in the Golden Eagle Chief. In 1999, after four years into the restoration project, Bill decided to write to Bobbi about his airplane. Much to his great surprise, Bobbi replied in a letter! They kept in touch. Bobbi was thrilled to hear about the progress on the Golden Eagle. She had lost track of her Golden Eagle Chief many years before. The last she heard, it was decaying in a field somewhere, and then it disappeared. Bill's Golden Eagle had rolled off the assembly line right after Bobbi's--the serial numbers were one number apart, so in that way, Bobbi felt very connected to it.

Restoration Photos by Bill Rasmussen
(Click on each photo for a larger view.)

continue reading the story . . .