L-2 Opener

The Littlest Warbird
Text and Photos by Budd Davisson, Air Progress, Dec, 1990

The wood wings are the L-2's Achilles heel in terms of longevity

Warbirds are Merlins barking through short stacks and Mr. Browning's fifty calibers snorting their lethal message. Warbirds are mounds of aluminum with flashing multi-blade props and lines that cleave the air like demonic rapiers. Warbirds are 65-hp Continentals with ragwings that cruise at 80 mph. You might ask what kind of warbird could do more than taxi with only 65 hp? The answer—the "grasshoppers."

Okay, so maybe the Army's WWII inventory of grasshopper liaison airplanes might be more properly catalogued as "warbugs" instead of warbirds, but they were and are an important part of any big shootout. Today, the helicopter has preempted much of the liaison role of the littlest warbirds, but even so, the Army would still be half-blind without its Forward Air Controllers.

The "L" series airplane of WWII is a whole new area for the warbird freak, especially the lowbuck ones, to get lost in. Every single manufacturer of the period had at least one military contract to crank out land-on-any-road liaison types. Piper, Stinson, Interstate, Aeronca, Taylorcraft—they all had little airplanes that went to war wearing olive drab with designations ranging from L-1 through L-6.

The specifications were simple enough: Build a simple airplane capable of landing on unimproved (read: non-existent) runways that may be as short as 500-700 feet; make them so they can be shipped in kit-like containers and put together by any second class Jeep mechanic, and then design them so nothing breaks. So put it all together and what have you got? A Piper Cub (L-4), a Taylorcraft "D" series (L-2), an Aeronca (L-3), an Interstate Cadet (L-6) and the Stinsons (L-1 and L-5). Of these, only the Stinsons were specially designed for the role of passive warrior. The rest were right off the shelf ragwings that went to war, with nothing to shoot back with. Their original population was something over 13,000 airplanes. The bulk of them were L-4s with L-5s being next, then L-2s, L-3s, and L-ls.

Nobody will ever know for sure how many of these airplanes were just shoved to the side of wilderness airstrips at the end of the war and left to be returned to the earth by the ravages of nature, but there were probably quite a few. It's fair to guess that a grasshopper that went overseas was a grasshopper that didn't come back. Even so, considering the quick extinction rate, there are still lots of the airplanes around (except the L-1 Stinson. only a couple exist). They are one hell of a deal for the aver age price of $4000. They may not be fast, but they combine more fun, economy and nostalgia into one fabric covered package than almost any other airplane in the price range. Eventually, we're going to fly and write about each of the bargain basement warbirds. We're going to start at the bottom and work our way up. Since the L-ls are all but gone, that leaves the L-2 as the lead ship in this formation.

The L-2 is a Taylorcraft, make no mistake about it. Most folks think of tunnel-vision side-by-side airplanes like the BC-12D when they think of T'crafts. Well, they're right, but there's another model that doesn't poke its head up much these days and that's the tandem "D" mode. The main difference in appearance between the "D" and "B" model was the fuselage, which was much narrower for tandem seating. However, the innards are totally different.

In 1941 the "D" model was being cranked out for the CPT and CAP programs. So, it was natural that when the brass decided it made a lot more sense to use little airplanes as aerial eyes than hulking monsters like their old 0-52 Owls, they'd grab something with which they were already familiar, the T'craft "D." They first called it the 0-57, then the O-57A was officially put into production and 336 were built. Somewhere along the line the military decided, as they do periodically, that everybody was beginning to understand their designation system too well, so naturally, they changed them. The "0" for observation was changed to "L" for liaison and the 0-57 became the L-2. (No big deal, it was still a T'craft in fatigues.)

There were 336 "A" model L-2s and 490 "B"s built for artillery observation. The most numerous model was the L-2M. Nine hundred were built before the L-2 line was shut down.

Currently, for every L-2 that's still following its 65-hp Continental around, there's at least one more stuck in the back of a hangar or hiding somewhere in the weeds. They are much less expensive than J-3s or Champs, perhaps due to the wood-wing construction. The L-2 wings don't share the metal ribs of the more common BC-12D and if it has been exposed to the elements without being properly protected, the wooden ribs and the plywood leading edge tend to come apart, dictating a complete rebuild of the wing. However, it's the kind of woodwork that's only a notch or two tougher than putting shelves in the upstairs closet. As a rebuilding project, the L-2 is very high on my personal list because the pieces are just the right size and weight: you don't need to call in half the neighborhood to move a wing or the fuselage. as you would with something like a P-51. Also, with the exception of a few fittings, most pieces in an L-2 could be fabricated or repaired in your own workshop (with an A&P looking over your shoulder, naturally), which makes restoration a much simpler project.

Can't you just see yourself, warm and toasty in your comfy little workshop? Old photos of warbirds festoon the walls between your neat-as-a-pin tool shelves. You've just finished spraying on the last flat flowing coats of olive drab, and you're stripping away the tape that protected the carefully masked insignia and invasion stripes. As the tape reluctantly gives up its hold on the paint, the meaningless paper covered form of the fuselage or wing is quickly transformed into a recognizable piece of real warbird, ... and it's all yours. Your very own backyard time machine. In following weeks you can fly cross-country, and the windbreaks of Ohio or Nebraska will become hedge-rows in France. Each field of hay becomes a clearing in the Burmese jungle, a scowling bird-colonel with secret orders fidgeting at its edge, waiting for you to take him on the next step of his urgent mission. Don't be embarrassed by your thoughts. The whole of aviation is based on daydreams, and airplanes like the L-2 just give form to some of those fantasies.