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A Pair of Aces Wins This WWI Flyboy Game

November 28, 1986|MAUREEN MAMAN | Maman lives in Los Angeles

It may be a long way to Tipperary, but for Fred Machado Jr. and George Sweeny, it's only 55 miles up the freeway.

Every Wednesday and Saturday morning the two friends, both retired municipal government employees, drive from their homes in Culver City to the Camarillo Airport in Ventura County where they base their World War I-style biplanes.

And once they get there, it's the days of Eddie Rickenbacker and Billy Bishop all over again as Machado and Sweeny take to the sky. Their spunky little home-builts quickly travel 150 feet down the runway before lifting off. While cruising at 95 m.p.h. above Camarillo, the fliers are in frequent communication.

Machado: "What's your location?"

Sweeny: "I'm at the east end of the valley on the south side. I'm going to climb to 3,000 feet and level off."

Machado: "Roger."

Boyhood Fantasies Come True

For Machado, 62, and Sweeny, 58, Wednesday and Saturday mornings are the culmination of boyhood fantasies developed years ago on a steady diet of pulp magazines with names like Battle Aces, Flying Aces and War Birds.

With white aviators' scarfs flying in the breeze, leather helmets and goggles in place, they once again stalk Von Richthofen--the Red Baron.

Those enemy planes in the distance? They're probably members of the Experimental Aircraft Assn., Local 723 of Camarillo--EAA'ers, who, like Machado and Sweeny, build and fly their own planes.

And those guns mounted on the top wing of Machado and Sweeny's planes: They're a part of the fantasy, too. The Lewis guns are replicas crafted from balsa wood and steel piping.

You can tell these flyers are aces; they've got five Maltese crosses painted on their planes--one star for each "kill." Machado's plane even has a little something extra, but he won't say why the dead mule is painted next to the five crosses. One can only surmise.

Sweeny, a soft-spoken man whose gentle humor complements his friend's gregariousness, met Machado when they were employed by Culver City--Sweeny was the city's fire chief and Machado its transportation superintendent.

Long-Term Team

Because the men shared an interest in motorcycles, they teamed up, spending much of their free time riding around Southern California, through the Sierras, one time biking a thousand miles to La Paz, Mexico, in Baja California.

They also shared an interest in airplanes, especially of the World War I era.

Machado received his pilot's license in 1947 when he took a commercial flying course on the GI Bill. He didn't continue flying, however. It wasn't cheap, he said, and he had many expenses in those years when he and his wife, Mildred, were raising their four children. But in 1975, when Sweeny fulfilled a boyhood dream to fly, Machado reactivated his license, and the friends rented airplanes for their outings.

In 1981 they built their first planes--aerodynamically sleek little fiberglass single-seaters called Quickies, which they assembled from kits.

Shortly after that, Machado was ready to build again. This time he found exactly the plane he knew would make them happy--the Boredom Fighter, so named by retired aeronautical engineer Donald S. Wolf of Huntington, Long Island, New York, who designed the plane.

The Boredom Fighter, closely resembling a World War I SPAD, is constructed primarily of wood and cloth, which was fortunate for Machado, who had developed an allergy to the epoxy resin used in the construction of the Quickies.

Machado bought the plans in August, 1981, but surgery in November laid him up for several months. It wasn't until February, 1982, that he and Sweeny began building their planes in a workshop behind Machado's house.

Two years or about 2,300 hours later, he finished his plane at a cost of about $6,000, Machado said. Probably a third of the construction time, he said, was spent looking for parts.

Sweeny's plane took an additional year to complete, because he hadn't yet retired when he began building his Boredom Fighter.

"Mine was the first built other than the prototype, and George's was the second," Machado said. Although about 100 sets of plans have been sold, Machado said he's heard of only one other Boredom Fighter that's been completed.

Camouflage and Indian Heads

The unusual paint schemes and markings on the planes were the result of careful research by the two men. In keeping with a World War I motif, each plane has a green camouflage background painted by Machado. An Indian-head profile, symbolic of the legendary Lafayette Escadrille, appears on each side of the planes. Their version of the Indian head, resplendent in its blue-and-white war bonnet, was designed by Sweeny and painted, along with other art work, by Machado's friend, artist Andre Anastasion.

The most notable exterior differences between the two planes are a red nose and the number 22 on Machado's plane, a blue nose and the number 65 on Sweeny's.

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