Tinkering with the Past: Vintage Aircraft
Across the nation, dedicated engineers have brought vintage aircraft back to life—and with them a glimpse of our rich technological past
On April 26, 1944, the 72-year-old Orville Wright posed for a photograph at the controls of a Lockheed Constellation, a triple-tailed, four-engined behemoth that could reach 340 miles per hour and had a ceiling of 24,000 feet. Only four decades earlier, Wright had taken the Flyer, a fragile creation of wire, wood, and muslin, on the first controlled, powered, and human flight in a heavier-than-air vehicle. He noted that his first wobbling flight of 120 feet had been shorter than the Constellation’s wingspan.
In the first four decades of human flight, inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs spurred a dizzying evolution in flying machines. The first steps, though, were somewhat tentative. Following their initial success, the Wright brothers returned to their home in Dayton, Ohio, and refined the design. Not until 1908 did the airplane really take the world by storm, when Wilbur made a series of wildly-acclaimed demonstration flights in Europe and Orville amazed crowds by flying just outside Washington, D.C. Wilbur’s mission was triumphant, but Orville’s ended in tragedy. On September 17, 1908, he crashed, badly injuring himself and killing his passenger, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, who belonged to a rival team of airplane designers.
But by then not even the angel of death could stop the airplane—and the thousands of men and women who invented, experimented, tinkered, and made modifications. The Wrights themselves became embroiled in a series of patent battles that slowed aviation in the United States, yet during World War I airplanes battled among the clouds. After the war dependable and powerful radial engines enabled daring pilots to span oceans, while engineers on the ground made technological breakthroughs in everything from aerodynamics to fuel technology and ushered aviation into its golden age. Barnstormers with surplus military biplanes flew from field to field and introduced ordinary Americans to the wonders of flight. One of those barnstormers was Charles Lindbergh, whose nonstop solo flight from New York to Paris set off an international frenzy in 1927. Daring pilots in sleek and powerful racers continually challenged each other and their design capabilities as they flew faster and farther and set new records in a series of air races.
World War II sent aviation’s development into overdrive. Airplanes became unsurpassed engines of destruction. The Wright Flyer itself, on loan to Great Britain, remained hidden outside London while its German descendants rained bombs on the country. In August 1945 the Boeing B-29 Superfortresses Enola Gay and Bockscar dropped atomic bombs on Japan. By the time Orville climbed aboard the Constellation, newly developed jet engines were propelling airplanes ever faster and higher. Just a few months before Orville’s death in 1948, Charles “Chuck” Yeager flew an orange Bell X-1 faster than the speed of sound.
Today comparatively few historic airplanes remain. Of the nearly 10,000 B-29 bombers built, only a handful escaped wartime destruction or postwar salvage yards. Of these, only one is airworthy. At museums and airfields across the country, dedicated restorers—many of them volunteers—have labored valiantly to bring some of the survivors back to life. They fight corrosion, make new parts, stitch fabric, and strip paint.
Two schools of thought exist as to the proper means of restoring an aircraft. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., which preserves perhaps the world’s most impressive collection of historic aircraft, “does not restore its aircraft to flying status, because the steps required to make a plane airworthy often eradicate much of its value as an artifact,” says Malcolm Collum, the museum’s chief of conservation. A full-blown restoration to flyable condition, he says, requires replacing original parts with flight-worthy components. “Every time you do that you are reducing the percentage of that airplane that you can define as authentic,” says Collum, and that approach doesn’t suit the Smithsonian’s philosophy of treating each aircraft as a “historic document.”
At other institutions the goal is to get their airplanes into the air. The Planes of Fame in Chino, California, has around 30 flyable airplanes, and it plans to have its YP-59A Airacomet, America’s first operational jet, flying again before long. In Bethel, Pennsylvania, Paul Dougherty Jr. owns and operates the Golden Age Air Museum with a small flotilla of flyable airplanes. “If they don’t fly, they don’t earn their keep,” he says, standing in a hangar surrounded by machines he has restored to flying status. “If it’s got wings on it, it flies.” That is what airplanes have been doing for slightly more than a century now, ever since Orville Wright lifted off the ground for just under the length of a Constellation’s wingspan.
On the following pages are the stories of five vintage aircraft and the people who lovingly restored them, each tale representing an important segment of our collective technological past, artifacts of the innovation and dedication that built the U.S. air industry. Attached to each story is information about how to visit the aircraft and see it, touch it, perhaps fly in it. Go see them—and talk with the enthusiasts who have put them back together. There is no better gateway to understanding our technological past than to examine the machines themselves.
Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny”
American Airlines pilot Paul Dougherty Jr. traces the origins of the Golden Age Air Museum in Bethel, Pennsylvania, to the October day in 1985 when he and his father bought a 1949 Cessna 195 at auction. More purchases followed. “Pretty soon our family asked us what we planned on doing with all those airplanes,’” relates Dougherty. “Dad and I looked at each other and jokingly replied that we were going to start a museum.”
And so they did: its hangars sit alongside a rural grass strip just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Visitors can inspect the small fleet of classic aircraft and ride in a two-seat Waco biplane. Dougherty’s latest addition is a fire-engine red 1918 Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny,” painted in the colors of Earl S. Daugherty, a barnstorming pilot from California in the 1920s.
World War I aviators learned to fly in the Jenny, and postwar barnstormers used cheap surplus Jennies to introduce Americans all over the country to aviation. Powered by a liquid-cooled, 90-horsepower OX-5 engine that gave it a top speed of 75 miles per hour, the Jenny was no thunderbolt—but it was tough, reliable, and, even more important, available.
It took some time, but Dougherty tracked down what remained of a JN-4D in a Florida barn. “When we acquired this airplane the fuselage was in buckets,” he says. It took him seven years, with help from volunteers at the museum, to finish the restoration. “Every single component and part of this airplane has been taken apart and reassembled,” Dougherty says proudly. “If two pieces of wood were together, they’ve been separated.”
They did all the work themselves, except for some intricate machine work on the cyclinders and valve guides: “We also didn’t have the special tooling to pour the main bearings and crankcase, so we got that done elsewhere,” Dougherty reports. He himself assembled all of the airplane’s 276 wires for bracing and control cables. He replaced most of the wood—only about 20 percent of the original could be kept—but retained 80 percent of the metal. Recrafting some of the pieces, including the U-shaped “peach basket” around the landing gear, required long hours with a torch and a hammer.
The original Jennies wore skins of doped Irish linen, but this one is covered with a more durable modern polyester product named Ceconite. The team ironed the Ceconite to tighten it, and then applied up to 14 coats of dope.
Compared to all that, getting flight certification, Dougherty says, was “relatively easy.” The plane returned to the sky for the first time since the 1920s on July 5, 2009, making it one of only five flying Jennies in the world and a true survivor from aviation’s golden age.
The Golden Age Air Museum, at 371 Airport Road in Bethel, Pennsylvania, has more than 30 aircraft in its collection, many of them flying. From May through October it is open Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m.–4 p.m. (717) 933-9566; www.goldenageair.org.
Time flies when you’re having fun, or so it must seem to TWA mechanic Don Browett. For the past 17 years he has been working on a DC-3 restoration for the Airline History Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. “I talked them into buying the plane,” says Browett, who’s always had a thing for the sleek, dolphin-nosed airliner, which first flew in 1935.
He saw an ad for the mothballed beauty in the periodical Trade-A-Plane. Its fuselage was sitting in Roswell, New Mexico, while its engines, wings, and tail lay in storage at a museum in Colorado. Time had not been kind to the once splendid airliner: wet insulation material below the metal skin had set off widespread corrosion.
When this aircraft left the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, California, in February 1941, twin-engine DC-3s dominated air travel in the United States and around the world. In 1939 three-quarters of U.S. airline passengers flew aboard this model. Its stout design relied on a light but strong cellular wing structure of interlocking ribs and spars, which Jack Northrop designed for Douglas. “It took us and ten thousand crews around the globe to where we had to go and brought us home again, honest, faithful and magnificent machine that it was,” wrote one pilot. By the time production ended,[A] more than 11,000 DC-3s and its military equivalent, the C-47, had rolled off the assembly lines.
The first challenge for the Airline History Museum was getting the aircraft home. Using C-47 manuals, which provided more detail than civilian DC-3 documentation, the team disconnected all the hydraulics and electrical systems, separated the fuselage from the center section (which includes the engine nacelles), and then lifted the parts onto a specially-designed cradle atop a rented trailer.
The museum purchased a pair of engines, then overhauled them, replacing the worn-out parts with new ones. Browett and other team members spent a day with a Wisconsin company that converted DC-3s into turboprops, coming away with valuable information and accessory cowlings and cowl-flap rings. When the parts weren’t available, such as the circumferential rings in the fuselage, they manufactured replacement pieces and spliced them in. Browett used his contacts at TWA to get the new pieces heat-treated.
“By the time we finished with the fuselage we replaced more than 60 percent of the skin, clear down to the windows on both sides, because it was just so corroded and nasty,” he reports. They gutted the interior, removed the tail wheel, and replaced the rear belly. Once the fuselage was completed the workers remounted it on the center section, reconnected the cables and hydraulics, and began work on the wings and control surfaces. That required the painstaking removal of all the rivets holding the skin panels in place, so they could inspect and clean the inside. Reattaching them required construction of wing-attach angle fixtures.
“We don’t have any seatbelts yet,” concedes Browett, but the long process is nearly finished. The timetable for getting into the air now “depends on money.” When the airplane does fly it will wear TWA colors, the same as it did in 1941 when the aircraft arrived at this same Kansas City airport to take up its new duties. So the 17-year restoration has really been an extended homecoming.
The Airline History Museum began in 1986 as Save A Connie Inc., an organization devoted to restoring a Lockheed Constellation airliner, which now flies at air shows around the country. The museum also bought a Martin 404 and then the DC-3. The aircraft and displays about airline history are open to visitors at the museum’s headquarters in a hangar at Kansas City Downtown Airport. (816) 421-3401 or (800) 513-9484; www.airlinehistorymuseum.com.
Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina
The volunteers of the Historic Aircraft Recreation Project (HARP) restore airplanes at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, which in its day hosted fliers such as Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Doolittle, Howard Hughes, and Wiley Post. Although no longer a working airport, the field functions as part of the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area. HARP does its work in the cavernous Hangar B, where visitors can watch volunteers restore a variety of aircraft, including a Beechcraft JRB, Douglas C-47, Grumman Goose, Lockheed P2V, and Stearman N2S-2.
Licensed airframe mechanic Bob Filippi oversees restoration of the C-47 and also of a Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina flying boat that served in the South Atlantic during World War II. Afterwards it patrolled the Amazon River for the Brazilian government until an American collector bought it with the intention of trading it to the Marine Corps. Now Filippi and other HARP volunteers are restoring the big flying boat to look like the Blue Goose, a PBY-5A that Maj. Jack Randolph “Mad Jack” Cram used in October 1942 to attack Japanese transports at Guadalcanal with jury-rigged torpedoes.
As Cram’s raid triumphantly showed, the twin-engine, high-winged Catalinas, while slow and lumbering, were flexible. They flew air-sea rescue missions, attacked submarines, performed valuable scouting work, and shipped troops and supplies far and efficiently. They served in every branch of the U.S. armed forces and also with America’s allies. A Catalina of the Royal Air Force’s Coastal Command spotted the battleship Bismarck in May 1941, and doing so spelled its doom. In June 1942 a U.S. Navy Catalina located a Japanese fleet in mid-Pacific, precipitating the pivotal Battle of Midway.
Filippi’s goal is an airworthy airplane, although the Marines are unlikely to ever fly it again. Not surprisingly for an airplane that spent much of its career on the water, the Catalina suffers from widespread corrosion. “Wherever we find corrosion we have to stop it,” says Filippi, who has been working on the plane off and on for the last eight years. “Some places the corrosion is rather extensive, and it’s a major surgery. Sometimes it’s minor surface corrosion. You just chop it off and do a patch.”
He has noted some bad corrosion in a wing spar, whose replacement is out of the question: “You’d be in the million-dollar bracket doing that. The National Parks is not rich.” He’s thinking about removing the wing to give the workers—all volunteers—better access to the interior.
This last factor also affects the pace of restoration. “It’s a small team of people, and the skill sets just aren’t there,” says Filippi. New volunteers go through a training period—starting with paint stripping, then often moving on to riveting. “If they can do it, then I can let them loose on the plane. I don’t want them to hurt the plane. We already have enough work!”
He also worries about obtaining parts, particularly the chin turret and the two large Plexiglas blisters that once swelled from the fuselage but which the Brazilians removed when they demilitarized the plane. Filippi has identified one potential source of blisters, but the seller wants $35,000 for the pair. “At least it’s in the United States,” he says. “We found another pair in Holland, but they would be very expensive to cart over.” He also has a lead on a turret in Alaska.
“It’s a labor of love, that’s for sure,” he says. “I’m going to finish up the leading edge, and then I’ll attack the rest of the wing.” After the wing they plan to repair the fuselage. All they can do is take one step at a time, a steady pace perfectly suited for this lumbering but dependable flying boat.
HARP works out of Hangar B of Floyd Bennett Field, part of the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area in southeast Brooklyn, and open Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (718) 338-3799; www.nps.gov/gate/index.htm.
Boeing B-29 Superfortress
As an Air Force mechanic during the Korean War, Dave Santos spent many hours working on Boeing B-29s. Today the 75-year-old still tinkers with them, his latest being a nonflying restoration nearing completion at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. “It’s funny the way everything came back,” Santos says. “I would be working on the engines. They were putting these screws in, and I remember saying, ‘Wait a minute, they don’t use screws, they use bolts.’”
The B-29 first entered production in the crucible of war, not ideal circumstances for developing a technically innovative aircraft; so early versions of the gigantic four-engine bomber spent much time under repair. The B-29 improved upon its predecessor, the B-17 Flying Fortress, by employing pressurized sections—the cockpit, the waist, and a tunnel that connected the two—for high-altitude flight. A strikingly innovative centralized fire-control system enabled a single crew member to control all but the tail guns remotely. The program even survived the loss of the second prototype, which crashed after an engine caught fire, killing 10 crew members and 20 people on the ground. Despite such technical difficulties, the Superfortress became an efficient engine of destruction; two B-29s, the Enola Gay and Bockscar, dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The New England Air Museum’s B-29 had spent years deteriorating at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland before a museum crew disassembled it and brought it to Connecticut in 1973. Six years later a tornado ripped through the museum and tossed aircraft around like toys, some of which then hit the bomber and inflicted even more damage.
In 1998 veterans of the 58th Bomb Wing built a hangar for the aircraft and donated money to restore it. Santos, recently retired from United Technologies, came on board in 2000, and work began in earnest. “We started with the cockpit,” says Santos, where rotted insulation and wiring hung loose amid surfaces caked with pigeon droppings. Most of the equipment was missing, so the workers fabricated cockpit panels. “We had to strip everything out, all the wiring. We had to put in all new floors and bulkheads.”
The Museum of Flight in Seattle and Boeing’s Wichita, Kansas, division, which had been restoring its own B-29, became important sources for parts. “We really help each other out,” says Santos. For example, when the Wichita team had cockpit glass made for its airplane, they ordered an extra set. A nearby upholsterer made cockpit seats for free. After a couple of retired machinists from Hamilton Standard fabricated copies of the airplane’s .50-caliber guns, Smith and Wesson in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts, blued the barrels.
Finding the equipment for the central fire control became a particular headache. Carpenters whom Santos consulted said it would be very difficult to fabricate the hourglass-shaped pedestal. Eventually someone in the Seattle area, who had been using one as a coffee table, donated it to the Museum of Flight.
All that remains is to install the upper turret and one bomb bay door. For Santos the biggest reward is when veterans of the 58th Bomb Wing come to see the B-29, which is painted in their colors. “A lot of them have tears in their eyes.”
The New England Air Museum at Windsor Locks Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, close to Hartford’s Bradley International Airport, is open year-round, seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The collection includes more than 125 airplanes and 200 engines. (860) 623-3305; www.neam.org
When it lifts off the runway in the not too distant future, the YP-59A Airacomet at the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California, will become the world’s oldest flying jet. Maybe that will help the airplane earn a little respect. The P-59A may have been America’s first operational jet but it wasn’t a particularly good airplane.
Germany had flown the first turbojet-powered aircraft, the Heinkel He 178, in August 1939. Britain followed in May 1941 with the Gloster Pioneer, powered by an engine designed by Frank Whittle. The British Air Ministry gave General Electric a Whittle engine so the American company could build power plants for the Bell Aircraft Corporation’s XP-59. The prototype (now in the National Air and Space Museum) first flew on October 1, 1942, creating a “low rumbling roar like a blowtorch,” as one witness recalled, and “leaving a smell of kerosene in the air.”
The Army ordered 80 production P-59s even before testing the XP-59, but the plane proved so disappointing that Bell built only 50. Unstable and underpowered, even with GE’s improved I-16 engines, the P-59 couldn’t keep up with the top piston-engine fighters. Still, it was a beginning.
Only six P-59s remain today, none of them able to fly. Planes of Fame workers have been laboring for years to restore their plane, which began life as one of 13 preproduction planes named YP-59As. Museum founder Ed Maloney acquired it from a California technical college in 1958.
Sixty-four-year-old John Benjamin had been assisting the museum with a flying-wing restoration in Los Angeles when Maloney asked for his help on the Airacomet. Benjamin recalls telling Maloney that he would do it on the condition that they find “three I-16 engines, two for the ship and a spare.” The museum had performed work on the fuselage, for instance removing a seat and nose canopy added for observers. “When I finally got out there,” recalls Benjamin, “it was a matter of gathering all the parts in one hangar, and we just went forward.”
As the head of a small executive search firm that deals mainly with aerospace companies, Benjamin used his networking skills to obtain parts and assistance. “I’m not a pilot,” he admits, “or a really great mechanic, but I’m good at being a program manager.” One company manufactured new wing spars; another fabricated a replacement exhaust tube; a third overhauled the landing gear. A firm in Jamestown, New York, manufactured brand-new shaft bearings for the engines, and another outfit in Burbank overhauled and tested them in 1992. “They ran great,” says Benjamin. “The only part that is different on the engines is the igniter system. We decided to replace the old, funky GE part with LearJet igniters.” For safety reasons, the restorers also installed a fire suppression system that the original airplane simply didn’t have.
“This airplane is simple,” says Benjamin of the restoration. “The hard part was getting good volunteers.” He singles out retired GE employee Bruce Ritchie. “I came up to him one day and said, ‘Bruce, we have to wire this airplane.’ And he said, ‘I’m not a wiring guy.’ I said, ‘Bruce, you do everything!’” Armed with a wiring schematic, Ritchie set to work, “and he wired the whole damn airplane.” When a pilot finally fires up the twin I-16 engines and takes the YP-59A aloft, he’ll be happy know that.
The Planes of Fame Museum occupies two facilities, one at the Chino, California, airport, the other at Arizona’s Valle Airport. It owns 150 aircraft, 30 of them flyable. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. (909) 597-3722; www.planesoffame.org.