A 5-year-old boy stared into the sky at a buzzing contraption he had never seen before.
"What is it?" he asked.
"An airplane," the grown-ups told him.
The word meant nothing to this West Virginia farm boy. "What's that?" he asked.
• • •
Now that boy is 93. By now, as anyone at the Clearwater Airpark can tell you, Arnold Allen has learned a lot about flying machines.
Nearly every day, he comes to an old hangar he has rented for 34 years. With the sound of modern airplanes in the background, he wheels open a metal door.
Inside, the retired schoolteacher turns on lights and fans and gets to work. He is like any other tinkering retiree with sawdust on his pants and grease on his fingers, except for one thing: He builds airplanes.
"It's the ultimate in building," he said. "You're building something that people trust you to build and build it right, because somebody's life is going to depend on it."
Allen became a pilot in the 1940s, but after turning 70 he decided not to take up any passengers unless they were skilled enough to land airplanes themselves. He decided to stop flying solo when he turned 90.
But he can't stop building. He currently has three airplanes in various stages of construction or reconstruction at the Airpark, and is storing the frame of a fuselage for someone else.
He loves to come to the Airpark each day so he can weld together metal tubing, rebuild engines and cut, hammer, rivet, sand or grind whatever else he needs. Inside the hangar, cooled only by the whirring fans, he can reach into ancient cardboard boxes stuffed with washers, bolts, electrical switches, springs, clamps and other hardware, much of it used.
"I've got to keep busy," he explains. "I can't stay idle for five minutes."
• • •
Allen became a pilot in the 1940s in a government-run program called Civilian Pilot Training, one of a number of programs designed to prepare the nation for the looming possibility of a second world war. He joined the U.S. Army during World War II with hopes of becoming a military pilot, but instead worked in statistics. He later became a schoolteacher, and taught science for 22 years at Largo High School. Allen is married and has a daughter in Sarasota, and a son in Ohio
In about 1958, he got some blueprints and started building his first airplane in his garage. It was called a Stits Playboy, and he finished in 1972.
Over the years, he has built or restored 15 airplanes. Sometimes he works on production airplanes that someone else wrecked. Sometimes he starts with a set of blueprints, and sometimes not even that. His home-built airplanes are checked out by the FAA before they are certified as airworthy,
"The man is just an artist when it comes to welding things up and putting them together,'' said Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Jack St. Arnold, a pilot who has known Allen since the 1960s. "Everything he does he's an absolute perfectionist at it."
He once helped a friend build a replica of the "Ford Flivver," an aircraft that Henry Ford envisioned as an everyman's airplane, a sort of Model T of the air, but which never went into production.
Allen's projects evolve. Sometimes a friend starts restoring an airplane and gives up, so he passes it on to Allen. Sometimes friends work alongside him. Other times he goes it alone.
His current projects include rebuilding a small "Pitts Special" aerobatic biplane that he acquired from a friend. He also has the frame of a Taylorcraft in the hangar which a friend wants to reconfigure so paraplegics can fly it. And he is storing the frame of a Piper J-5 for a friend.
In a friend's hangar, he keeps a two-seat Piper "Super Cub." He has covered the tubular steel frame with a fabric called Ceconite, and treated it with "dope" that makes it taut and strong. Later, he'll paint it.
In another friend's hangar, he keeps an airplane called a "Wagabond," a tube-and-fabric aircraft that he built from a set of blueprints. Bob Roosen, 81, flew the Wagabond for Allen in 2006 and says it handled well. Now Allen needs a pilot to put 50 FAA-required test hours on this airplane, and then he can sell it.
He hopes to get $15,000 to $20,000, which is telling. He said the plane has $21,000 worth of parts in it. The point is not to make money, he said. The point is to keep building airplanes.
Allen is still dreaming up plans. He has an idea — and a few sketches at home — of a flying automobile he wishes he could build.
And even though Allen has given up flying for now, he would like to make an exception for a solo flight on his 100th birthday.
Pressed on this, he goes a little further.
"I used to say that on my 100th birthday I wanted to fly an airplane that I built, coast to coast, solo. I told my son that one time. He said 'Well, if everything goes right and you want to do that I'll take another airplane and follow you.' "