MECHANICSBURG — Dick Duncan was the kind of child who wanted to know how everything worked.
He developed a love for taking things apart and creating new inventions as he grew up around tractors and other machinery on his family’s potato farm in northern Maine.
He fondly recalls one project from his teenage years in which he turned airplane parts into a propeller-driven snow mobile.
Duncan, 73, stills finds pleasure in building new things and for more than a year, he has been constructing two Piper J-3 Cubs — small airplanes scheduled to fly this summer for the first time.
“The J-3s were the planes of the ’40s and ’50s. I’m kind of living in the past by bringing these planes back to life,” Duncan said with a laugh. “I have restored many planes, but I have never had the opportunity to really build one from scratch.”
Joe Hermitt, PennLive.com Duncan studied crop management at the University of Maine. Married with three daughters, he worked for the federal government overseeing soil conservation and lived in Puerto Rico, Hawaii and other parts of the United States before settling in the area.
When he retired in 1995, Duncan, a certified pilot, rekindled his passion for airplanes by acquiring certificates through the Federal Aviation Administration that allowed him to work on and inspect airplanes.
He turned those certifications into a business. He is the owner and president of Wings ‘N Things, a company based at Capital City Airport in New Cumberland that provides service and repair work for airplanes. Duncan’s company has worked on planes that have transported state governors and attorneys general.
In October 2011, he started building the J-3 Cubs in the basement of his home off Dry Powder Road. Both planes are about 24 feet long with 30-foot wingspans and will run with approximately 90-horsepower engines.
While they’re close to completion now, both planes started as piles of parts. Duncan acquired many of them online and did the meticulous work of piecing everything together, painting and coating the wings, and making sure everything was just right.
In a recent visit with a PennLive reporter, he pointed to a set of engineering designs on the wall of his basement and said building the planes was just like assembling a large model airplane.
He later acknowledged that with one plane he was stumped on how to install a part of the wing. He had to seek out engineers and others familiar with the J-3 to figure out what went wrong before it was fixed.
Duncan said the planes and their parts cost about $35,000 each. A single part is often expensive — one crankshaft cost $2,500.
The plan is to fly them at an event in Lock Haven. The J-3s, which were observation planes in the World War II era, used to be produced at a factory there.
Asked if there will be any trepidation in flying a plane he built for the first time, Duncan said that feeling will quickly dissipate.
“You have a big lump in your throat when you first lift off the ground,” he said. “But it’s such an exhilarating feeling to know that you took a pile of pieces and parts and made it into something that flies. It’s very satisfying.”
Duncan is not alone in constructing planes. In 2011, Dan Reeves concluded his nine-year building odyssey of a two-seater Van’s RV-7A airplane, when he pulled it through a hole in a wall at his Lower Allen Township house and into the light of day.