Story and photos by John Hummer
Exponent staff writer
Susan Maule is an international pilot for American Airlines. She flies an Airbus A-330 that holds just under 300 passengers. She is in her 32nd year of piloting.
She is now the proud owner of a 1963 Maule historic airplane.
After designing and manufacturing parts for airplanes including a Hummer starter and light aircraft tailwheels for several years, in 1946, Susan’s grandfather and grandmother, Belford D. (B.D.) and June Maule bought a farm on the corner of M-50 and Napoleon Road and turned it into an airport. They called it Maule Field, the predecessor to Napoleon Airport. An interesting side note: The Maules had to level a dog race track which had been operated by Al Capone to get the facility up and running.
The airport flourished, being used for flight training during the post-World War II aviation boom.
After years of experimentation in design and engineering of aircraft, in 1961, B.D. Maule received Federal Aviation Administration certification for the model Bee Dee M-4 and started production immediately in Napoleon. The first production model, known as the Jetasen M-4, was delivered in April 1962.
In the meantime, young Susan Maule was born in 1960.
“I had my first flying lesson when I was seven,” she said. “We were at the airport all the time.”
Fast forward nine years later to Oct. 19, 1976 when Susan turned 16. Her goal was to fly solo on her birthday for the first time, as the youngest age one can solo an airplane is 16 years old.
“When my birthday came, totally unplanned, my friends all showed up with their planes,” she said. “I went from soloing what I thought would be one airplane to 12 airplanes.”
Susan’s father, Ray Maule, operated a flight school at Maule Field and taught many people in the area how to fly.
When soloing the planes on her birthday, her father insisted that the first one be a Maule.
“He had one in the hangar that he was selling for someone – we didn’t have one at the time,” Susan said. “So, he pulled it out. I soloed that. The last one I soloed that day was a Maule in Manchester.”
A year later when she turned 17 and was getting her pilot’s license, she borrowed the same Maule plane that was in Manchester. That plane was a Maule M-4 built in 1963.
In 1968, Susan’s grandparents moved the Maule Company from Napoleon to Moultrie, Georgia where they found an ideal site to construct and test aircraft at Spence Air Base, and ex-World War II training field. Other reasons for the move included better flying weather and lower labor costs.
After many years of flying the big jet for the commercial airlines and living in a small town near Philadelphia, in 2013, Susan came back to Michigan for a visit and on the trip visited the people in Manchester that owned the plane that held sentimental value to her — the Rosetti family.
“There used to be a glider club [in Manchester]; this plane towed gliders for most of its history,” she said.
Susan bought the plane from the Rosetti’s for $14,000.
“It’s worth a lot more now,” she said.
Meanwhile, Susan’s nephew, Ty Wilkes, grew up learning about planes and became the plant manager at the Maule Air factory in Moultrie, Georgia.
After buying the 1963 Maule M-4, Susan flew the plane to Maule Flight, a maintenance and repair shop, also in Moultrie, Georgia, that does restoration of older planes.
“It hadn’t been touched in 50 years,” Susan said, meaning it still had all its original paint and original interior fabric. “We tore all the fabric off, took everything apart, and Ty, along with a few helpers, rebuilt it.”
“We stripped the plane completely down to the bare metal frame,” Wilkes said. “I sandblasted it, rechromated it, and then re-covered the plane with Ceconite fabric. I also put a new boot cow (cowling enclosure around the engine) on it. We rebuilt everything with all new parts.”
Wilkes said they completely refurbished the interior of the plane as well, including an all-new digital instrument panel. However, they kept the historic sentiment in mind during the restoration process.
“We tried to keep as much of it as original as possible,” he said.
The engine of the plane, a Continental Motors 145-horsepower, six-cylinder engine, was built in Muskegon, Mich.
“This is not the fastest version of a Maule, but it’s the prettiest,” said Susan.
“What these planes are known for are their short take-offs and landings, bush plane capabilities,” she said, adding that Maule planes were used in the movies Cannonball Run (1981) and Speed II: Cruise Control (1997), as well as the television show Bloodlines.
Wilkes said Maule planes today are often used in remote areas like Alaska and South America where there are very short runways.
“They carry in supplies, food, tools and things like that,” he said. “They have a very large cargo area with clamshell-opening doors, so you can really load a bunch of equipment and tools in them. They’re a workhorse-style airplane.”
Wilkes said because they are slow-speed planes they are also used for reconnaissance and surveillance missions.
“They’re an overall versatile airplane,” he said. “They can get up to a decent cruise speed, carry a good bit of weight (up to 1,000 pounds useful load), and get in and out of short runways.”
Susan plans to use her newly refurbished historic plane for recreational purposes, going to various fly-ins (airshows), and taking friends for rides.
On July 20, she and Wilkes flew the plane from the Maule factory in Georgia to the Napoleon Airport where the plane was originally built.
“It was four years from when I flew it down to Georgia from here, and now back, looking like a completely different plane,” said Susan.
Susan reflected upon the history of the plane.
“My grandfather would have been very instrumental in the production of this plane because it was an early one,” she said. “They started building planes in ’62 and this one was built in ’63, so it was one of the first ones. Then, my father gave me my license in this plane, so there’s the second and third generations, and then the fourth generation – the great grandson (Ty Wilkes) rebuilt it.”
Susan proudly noted that her plane recently won a Lindy Award (named after Charles Lindberg) for “Outstanding Limited Production – Outstanding in Type” at a recent EAA AirVenture event in Oshkosh, Wis.
Maule Air has now built nearly 2,600 planes that are all over the world. B.D. and June Maule are in the Aviation Hall of Fame. And it all started right here in Napoleon.
For more history and information about the company, visit mauleairinc.com.