For the love of airplanes

by Sonja J. Keith

Al Hiegel has found an interesting and big way to express his love of airplanes.

The 90-year-old Conway man – a World War II veteran, a pilot and a retired business owner – recently created a nearly life-size silhouette of an F4U Corsair that he has attached to the doors of the barn at his home. The project took about a month to complete.

“I did it for the love of airplanes,” he said.


Serving in the Navy during World War II, Al was a radar operator on the U.S.S. Independence CVL-22, which was engaged in the battle of Okinawa. He retired from Hiegel Lumber & Hardware after 50 years. His flying included a commercial pilot’s license with 3,000 flying hours.

Al said he was always fond of the F4U, a WWII Navy fighter plane, and even built a replica in the 1970s with Styrofoam when he was at Hiegel Lumber. Making the model without a kit, he replicated the plane by looking at a picture in a book. The plane has some unique features, including two radial engines and a bend in each wing. “I always loved it,” he said. “I just loved the looks of it.”

To construct the silhouette Al took a photo of the barn doors, which he uploaded to his computer and printed. He found a drawing of an F4U in an aviation book, copied it on the computer and re-sized it to fit the barn photo. “Being a carpenter by trade, I can read a rule and started in taking measurements. If a component measured 1/8 inch that was a fraction. I turned it into a decimal, multiplied that by 48. My barn is 48 times larger than my paper. I had a full page of mathematics to follow before I ever started.”

Using the floor in the barn, Al made a full scale drawing in chalk of the 10-foot by 12-foot door. “Pre-planning paid off,” he said. “I knew what size and shape every component should be, where it fit into the overall picture and what color it should be.”

Al made up 44 pieces of aluminum, which he cut out, painted and riveted to the door, taking into consideration the door hinges. “Each piece had to be placed with the hinges in mind so the doors will still open as usual and look like one piece when closed.”

Al and his wife Mary, both graduates of St. Joseph School, recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. They have three children, 14 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.

“I have a trusting wife who believed in me and thought I knew what I was doing,” Al said. “Although, she had no idea what it would look like. I had never seen anything like it and just took on the project in terms of what I thought I was capable of doing.”

Al said the F4U was a special project. While he had a helping hand to hold some of the pieces while he attached them, Al completed the project all on his own, without an artist. “This is my last big, crazy project,” he said. “But, I might change my mind.”

The No. 22 was incorporated into Al’s design as a reference to the number assigned to the U.S.S. Independence and noted that the project was completed on Aug. 22. He said the plane on the barn appears “ready to go” and has already attracted a few stares from passers-by. He said it is an appropriate place, next to where the old Conway airport was previously located.

“I enjoyed working the whole project. I always did think the F4U had a lot of pizzazz and this brought it all to fruition.”