Stephen Baldwin lives and breathes airplanes. As a young teenager, the Lakebay resident got his pilot’s license before he got his driver’s license.
“My father was a missionary to Guatemala, Central America and he was also a bush pilot. The first time he took me flying with him, it fascinated me and I just wanted to do what he did,” Baldwin said.
Today, Baldwin works as a maintenance mechanic for United Airlines, and also owns Baldwin Aircraft Services. “I do annual inspections on personal airplanes as a side business,” he said. “I also do pre-purchase inspections, repairs and appraisals, but annual inspections is the main thing that I do.”
He has owned several planes over the years. His latest acquisition is a Navion L17, built in 1948.
It was one of about 1,000 L17s built by North American. “It was designed for the Air Force to be used for reconnaissance. It was also used by generals as their personal plane after World War II,” he said. “General (Douglas) MacArthur used one,” he said.
Baldwin’s L17 is a single engine, variable speed prop, four-seater. “It’s a very stout airplane. North American also made the P-51 Mustang and you can tell by looking at it that the tail section and a lot of the design was modeled after the P-51. It was used to transport important people,” he said.
Baldwin’s research has revealed that from 1958 to 1963, his plane was owned by NASA and was used by astronaut Fred Haise for research during his tenure with that agency. “He did zero gravity testing, taking it up to a high altitude,” Baldwin said. “Then he would just drop it into a nosedive. He did lots of testing with it.”
That was a time when a great deal of research was being done, following President Kennedy’s directive that the U. S. was going to land a man on the moon, Baldwin noted.
In November of last year, Baldwin had the opportunity to meet Astronaut Fred Haise.
“Since I knew my plane’s history, I wanted to meet him. I met him at the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando, Florida where he and a bunch of other astronauts were getting together for dinner. I showed him a letter he had written about the plane on May 4, 1996, and he started talking about the airplane and what he did with it,” Baldwin said.
“He was really excited to see that this airplane is still in the air. He had lots of stories.
“One thing he told me not to do was the zero gravity test because when you dive, the engine tends to sputter and die.
“He said that he had to restart the engine in the air each time he did that,” Baldwin recalled with a smile.
“It felt really good to meet him because he was one of my heroes, because he was one of the ones on the Apollo 13 mission.”
Right now Baldwin’s L17 is at the Port Orchard Airport. He plans to show it at air shows and he hopes to take it to JBLM in the next couple of years “doing their static displays,” he said. As a bonus, Haise signed the plane’s cowling, which Baldwin polishes regularly.
He’s proud to own a “significant piece of history, right here on the Key Peninsula. I think that’s an honor for such a small rural community.”