Wilkerson Plane

Madison’s Wilkerson preparing
his rare warbird for public rides

Flying plane home was a true adventure

By Don Ward

(June, 2002) MADISON, Ind. – Mark Wilkerson has been buying, selling and flying airplanes for several years, but one particular airplane – a Vultee Basic Trainer 13 – that he recently bought from a man in Montana will go down as perhaps the most memorable.

Wilkerson Plane

Mark Wilkerson's Plane

That’s because taking delivery of the 1941 pre-war trainer required him to fly it solo off a snow-covered mountain with only 1,000 feet of runway and travel more than six hours to the nearest airport for the first of three refueling stops on his way back to Madison, Ind. What’s more, the trip took place in early December 2001, one of the coldest months of the year.
With no heat in the aircraft, except for an electric motorcycle vest that he had plugged into the cigarette lighter, and nothing to keep his mind occupied for hours except for an extraordinary view of the barren landscape of Montana and the Dakotas below him, Wilkerson prevailed.
Today, the aircraft sits in Wilkerson’s airplane hangar at the Madison Municipal Airport, where the 42-year-old aviation mechanic and airplane restorer is overhauling and repainting it. Wilkerson also has five Stearman biplanes in various phases of restoration, and owns a J-3 Cub and a Citiba aerobatic airplane.
By late June, Wilkerson hopes to have the BT-13 ready for taking people up on $125 rides. He plans to charge $145 for two people.
“It’s really a rare aircraft and one of the first 200 made. They were delivered to the Navy’s Moffett Field in California before World War II,” said Wilkerson, who has been reading up on the model from a book his wife, Kingsley, bought him for Christmas.
The BT-13 was used for training Army and Navy pilots before they advanced to AT-6 and P-51 fighters. The planes were only used from 1940 to 1945, then sold as surplus or scrapped for parts after the war.
“When I was stationed in Alaska in the 1950s, I saw thousands of them stacked in a junk yard,” said Madison flight instructor Ralph Rogers. “Many of them were taken to the Boneyard in the Phoenix desert and the parts were sold off of them.”
Wilkerson located the aircraft through an aviation trade magazine. The only problem was getting it home. His father, Fred Wilkerson, had no interest in making the trip out West with him, Mark said. So he went alone, taking a commercial flight to Billings, Mont., and then traveling on to a magnificent mountaintop lodge where the previous owner had kept the plane housed in a building.
Wilkerson said it was 20 below zero the morning he was preparing to depart. It was an ordeal to just get the engine started and the plane maneuvered into place for take off in two feet of fresh snow. He and his father had spent two days back home charting his cross-country trip.
After jump-starting the frozen engine and filling the fuel tanks, Wilkerson took off, just ahead of an approaching snow storm that would have grounded him for days. Ten minutes into the flight, the battery died, so Wilkerson’s heated vest went cold. Wilkerson could only climb as high as 10,000 feet without oxygen, so he had to maneuver the plane between 12,000-feet mountaintops for the first four hours.
Most of the airports in the area were closed for the winter. Using a hand-held Global Positioning Satellite instrument for guidance, he finally landed in Glindive, Mont., for his first fuel stop and overnight stay.
The next day, he traveled six hours and reached Iowa before landing for fuel and spending the night. The next six-hour flight got him as far as Sullivan, Ind., on the western border. From there, it was just over an hour flight into Madison.
Wilkerson said he averaged 150 mph for the trip, which was mostly into head winds. When he arrived in Madison, there happened to be several people there watching him bring it down.
“There was a lot of excitement,” Wilkerson recalled. “Everyone wanted to see it.”
Wilkerson said his research on the aircraft says there are only about 100 of the planes still in existence out of the more than 14,500 built, and only 35 of them are still flying. “There were more of these planes built than any other model during the war,” he said.
The planes are valued around $150,000 and are considered among the most affordable of the warbirds because they have no retractable landing gear. Wilkerson’s model is powered by a 450 horsepower engine.
“It flew great coming home,” he said. “But it was really an adventure getting here.”

• To inquire about rides, call (812) 273-1304.

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