Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Stuart K. Holmes: Kept 'em flyin' for 60 + years

One man stands out in my memory as an honest, hard-working, promoter of aviation. He did so in his own quiet sort of way. He wore khaki clothes and kept a serious face. A simple man of few words, Stuart K. "Stu" Holmes touched the lives of many as he lived his lifetime keeping old airplanes flying. Well... when he started, the airplanes weren't all that old. He just grew old with them.

Holmes (left) discusses aircraft restoration with John Bowden, circa 1974.

The following is a piece first researched and printed by Mr. Jerry Ferrel of Temple Texas. In some places, I have added a little more I have learned about Stu.

His Story began in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas where Stu Graduated from Santa Rosa High School in 1927. His family was returning to Michigan as hard times had come to the south Texas valley. But, Stu decided to stay in Texas... a very young man now on his own.

Around that time, another young man, Frank Ray, came to the Valley. Frank had finished Army Air Corps Flying School at Kelley Field (San Antonio) in the Spring of 1927 and came to Harlengen with a new OX-powered Waco 10 to begin his business called "Valley Airways". Stu recalled about his days with Valley Airways, "Frank gave me a place to stay and in return, I helped with the ground handling of the airplane and passengers." Unfortunately after only a short time, a tragic accident brought an end to Mr. Ray's life and to Valley Airways.

So, in 1928, Stu left Harlengen with the road construction crew. He helped build some of the very first concrete highways in Texas over the next three years. Then his travels brought him back to the valley in 1931. Before long, Stu met Mr. C.W. Blackwell who had brought two Travel Air biplanes to Harlengen. Blackwell hired Stuart in October 1931 to work as a mechanic in exchange for flying time and groceries. Stu got training in a Travel Air, a Kreider Reisner KR-21, and a Curtiss Robin. By May of 1932, he had soloed a Travel Air and had earned his airframe and engine (A&E) license # 11701.

So-began Stu's long association with flying and airplane mechanic work. Through the depression years, the bachelor Holmes worked his way from the valley to Central Texas. Work was found in Corpus Christi, Palestine, and Taylor Texas working on Wacos, a Travel Air 6000, and converting Travel Air biplanes to dusters.

Left, Stu servicing a Curtiss Robin with oil.

For a time, Stu owned and flew his own airplane, a Salmson powered American Eaglet. Stu later related that the 9-cylinder French engine had trouble with carburetor ice. After several forced landings and other bouts of bad luck with the airplane, Stu ended his airplane ownership. In 1939, Stuart landed a steady job in Austin with Mr. Harry Hammel working at the Austin municipal airport maintaining Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) airplanes, including a Waco F, Fleet, and Piper J-3 Cubs.

Then in 1941, Holmes was transferred to Coleman Texas to serve as Line Chief for the U.S. Army Primary Training Program, working on Fairchild PT-19's. While in Coleman, he met Estel Doggett and they were married in 1942. The Coleman operations closed in 1943, so Stu and Estel, now expecting a child, moved back to Austin. Stuart got hired by Ragsdale Aviation, where he spent the next several years maintaining Cubs, Taylorcrafts, N3N's and other airplanes for the University of Texas' ROTC program. Stu and Estel's children were born during those years; daughter Gail first in 1943, son Kenneth in 1946, and daughter Kay in 1947.

As the war ended, Stu worked in several locations rebuilding airplanes and doing free-lance mechanic work. For more steady income, Stuart joined Industrial Generating Corp of Rockdale TX to work as a powerplant mechanic. He continued doing part time A&P work and in 1956, he and Estel became the fixed base operator and manager of the Taylor Municipal airport, Taylor TX. This became their home until 1980.

Curtiss Robin and Cessna 150 on the tarmac
Taylor Municipal Airport, Circa 1974

During those years, the Taylor Airport became a favorite spot for air travelers passing through Central Texas. An ice-cold Coca-Cola was always available, as was some fine hospitality by Stu and Estel. Many earned their private pilot's license in Stu's 1956 Champion 7EC under the flight instruction of Stuart. This included his three children. Both of their girls have their pilot's license and son Kenneth stayed in the business to become flight operations director of the Aviation Department of Texas Utilities. Just as he taught many to fly, Stuart also mentored several folks in the art of aircraft restoration. This included my dad, who has the utmost respect for this man. Stu retired from his job at the power plant in 1970 and was able to continue his passion of airplane work in Taylor for several more years. The following is a partial list of award winning antique airplanes that Stuart restored while working in Taylor.
  • Luscombe 8E, owner Dave "Doc" Connolly
  • Ryan SCW, owner Dave "Doc" Connolly
  • Stinson 108-3, owner John Bowden
  • Curtiss Robin C-1, owner John Bowden
  • Fairchild 24G, owner Stuart and Estel Holmes

N16866 "My Fair Child", owned and restored by Stuart Holmes circa 1976

Stuart enjoyed flying his pristine Fairchild to area fly-ins. Stu enjoyed telling the story of his airplane (NC16866) which was the first 4-place built at the Fairchild factory. Many came to know Stu as a master restorer and expert in radial engines. In 1980, Stu and Estel "retired" from the Taylor FBO and moved to Burnet Texas. There Stu continued his passion and restored many radial engines in his backyard shop. He also restored two more J-3 Cubs, a Monocoupe 90A (N11767 owner, Jerry Ferrel) and completed a full-scale replica of the Williams-Texas "Temple" Monoplane (owner, Jerry Ferrel).

In the Summer of 1991, Stu became the first (or one of the first) person in the state of Texas to receive the prestigious FAA Charles Taylor - Master Mechanic's Award for serving more than 50 years as an A&E/A&P mechanic. Many of Stu's friends and colleagues joined his family to celebrate this momentous event.

Sadly, within a short time, Stu became ill and passed on from this life. A solid man of passion for flying, we know Stu is looking down on us from Heaven with a serious smile on his face and his favorite screwdriver in his hand.

- End -


  1. Terry,
    Thanks so much for the wonderful tribute to our Dad. He touched many lives through his flight instructions, repairs and restorations. He was truly his happiest when flying.

  2. Thanks Terry for the tribute to Mom and Dad. You are very gracious to remember them.

    Kenneth Holmes

  3. Terry,

    What a nice tribute to my grandparents. I learned some things about my grandfather that I never knew. Thanks for putting this out there.

    Cindy Holmes Richardson - daughter of Kenneth Holmes

  4. I started flying at the Taylor airport when I was 14 with Stuart as my instructor. I soloed shortly after my 16th birtday and go my Private Pilots License a year later, and I owe my lifelong involvement with aviation to Stuart. I knew Estel, Kenneth and both of his his daughters. I'll never forget Stuart Holmes. Somewhere I still have my T-shirt with the back missing from the day I soloed!!
    Frank Haley, Houston, TX


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