Fayette County

A seaworthy landing

When Tom Baker decided to build his own seaplane, he wanted to be sure it was done right.

So he took his time. Lots of time.

He started working on it in 1964, when he was living in California. And he finally finished it in 1993 after moving to the Louisville area. It took him 29 years.

"I guess you'd say it was a labor of love," he said.

But Baker, who is 92 years old, doesn't fly as much as he used to. So, on Thursday, he donated his little wood, metal and fabric plane to the Aviation Museum of Kentucky, which plans to put it on immediate display at its facilities at Blue Grass Airport.

"I think this is a great place for it," Baker said Thursday afternoon, after flying the plane to Lexington from southern Indiana, where he and his wife, Caroline, now live.

Technically, the plane is an amphibian, which means it can operate from land or water. Any kind of seaplane is rare in Central Kentucky. But this one is unusual in another way. The engine, mounted on struts above the fuselage, faces backward, so that the spinning propeller pushes the plane forward, instead of pulling it in a more traditional aviation layout.

Baker says he's landed the plane on the Ohio River and various lakes around southern Indiana many times since completing it in 1993.

"I tell people the plane has had 15 years of flying, and 29 years of building," he said.

Baker was born in Indiana but grew up in California, where his family moved when he was 10. He started flying in 1940 — 68 years ago — and once was a pilot for the Flying Samaritans, a group that ferried medical personnel into remote areas of Mexico to conduct clinics for needy people. He also helped develop a light plane designed for use by missionaries in rough terrain.

His interest in seaplanes began while he was working as an engineer for a California company that built patrol planes for the U.S. Navy.

"I've always been fascinated by seaplanes," he said. "But they aren't very practical in lots of places, because you can't land at an airport if there's no water around. So, an amphibian is a very practical way to have a seaplane."

Baker acquired working drawings for a Volmer VJ-22, a small, two-seat amphibian, and set out to build one. But he didn't expect it to take 29 years.

The plane's fuselage was made from strips of mahogany plywood ranging from one-sixteenth to one-quarter inch thick. Forming the curved strips took lots of time, he said.

"Progress was pretty slow, because I was still working full-time," he said. "That's mainly why it took so many years."

Baker might have kept his plane a little longer if health problems had not started to limit his flying time. Nowadays, he always flies with a friend, Brian West, acting as co-pilot.

"Because of the physical problems, I just thought it was best to let the aviation museum have the plane," Baker said. "Now, a lot more people can enjoy it."