By Frederick A. Johnsen
In a world of look-but-don't-touch wonders at AirVenture, Tom Bullion says he enjoys allowing kids to sit in his wartime Royal Navy AT-19 Reliant aircraft parked in the Warbirds area.
Bullion also likes to give new passengers a taste of what it is like to fly in an airplane like the hulking, big ragwing Reliant. "My desire is to let anyone on the planet fly in it," Bullion says, although he acknowledges ever-growing gas prices may limit the number of people who can be accommodated.
Getting kids in touch with their inner aviator is a thrill for Bullion. "One of my favorite things is to get 'em up in the left seat and let their parents take their picture," he explains.
Bullion's vehicle for these explorations is a heavy liaison aircraft Stinson built to meet a British requirement. He says the British originally asked American manufacturers to help the war effort by constructing 500 Lysanders, a proven British utility design with short-field capabilities.
The production run was too short to make it feasible to make special tooling for Lysanders, but Stinson suggested a militarized version of its SR-10 with heavier-gauge steel tube construction, Bullion explains. Gone was the civilian SR-10's elegantly bumped cowling, replaced with a no-nonsense smooth cowl. Stiffer, stronger landing gear on the military version further secured the Reliant's niche as a "Lysander Light," to borrow postwar parlance.
The U.S. Army Air Forces applied the nomenclature AT-19 to the resulting aircraft, which the receiving British dubbed the Reliant Mk. I, II, III, and IV. Bullion's Reliant carries British serial number FB607, plus a lot more, thanks to restorer Dr. Jim Tait. Tait acquired the aircraft after several civilian owners put minimal time on it in the years since it was returned as surplus in 1946.
Old British records stayed with the Reliant through its moves, showing FB607 in Royal Navy service at Cochin, India, in 1944-45. When Tait restored the Reliant, he sought original British equipment, and manufactured replicas of oddball items like flame floats-fiery bomb-like markers that could be tossed over water to mark locations as navigation aids.
The availability of painting documents allowed the accurate application of camouflage upper surfaces and bright yellow undersides to the Reliant, complete with Royal Navy roundels and fin flash markings.
The result is an aircraft that has the rugged look of a genuine military machine-not fancy, perhaps, but definitely not haphazard.
It took Bullion and Fred Fink, a FedEx corporate pilot, six hours to motor from Memphis to Oshkosh, including a couple of fuel stops made partly for timing to ensure a desired arrival time. Bullion says the Reliant can ask its R-680 radial engine to cruise at 120 miles an hour, "but to do that you really gotta run gas through it." So he prefers to motor along at 105 mph, letting the Reliant chow down on 15 gallons per hour.
Tom Bullion gives the appearance of somebody who genuinely enjoys coming to Oshkosh to share his vintage aircraft with those who are interested. The experience is worth a stroll in the grass at the north edge of the Warbirds area.