Air Zoo: Unique Airplanes

By Scott Spangler on November 1st, 2021

What makes the aerospace menagerie on display at Kalamazoo’s Air Zoo special is its unique airplanes, as in the only one in the world, the sole survivor of a specific make and model. With its black skin fading into the main display floor’s studio lighting, you have to look closely to see the second cockpit bump on the SR-71B trainer (or read the sign). The Curtiss XP-55 Ascender, on the other hand, is spotlighted in a back corner, standing guard next to the entrance to the World War II exhibit hall. And in the restoration building, which faces the Kellogg/Kalamazoo International Flight Line, visitors can watch, and learn from, the volunteers restoring the only F-117 Nighthawk on display at a civilian museum.

All three aircraft are on long-term loan from either the National Museum of the United States Air Force or the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. Lockheed built two SR-71B trainers. One of them was destroyed in a landing accident and the survivor retired to the Air Zoo after its last flight in 1999 with NASA at Edwards Air Force Base. The Air Zoo welcomed it to its exhibit area on April 23, 2003. It built steps and a platform so the curious can peer into the cockpit windows, and it opened the canopies on one of its open-cockpit weekends in September.

The other unique airplanes required a bit more work, said Air Zoo President Troy Thrash, and it was the institution’s restoration reputation that brought them to Kalamazoo. Curtiss built three XP-55 Ascenders during World War II. All three of the canard pushers crashed, Thrash explained. “Only this one was salvageable. It is a Smithsonian artifact. Knowing our restoration capabilities, the Smithsonian asked us if we wanted to take on this project. If we did, then we could have it here on long-term loan. It took us quite a few years to restore this airplane, but we are happy to say that we have the only XP-55 Ascender in the world.”

Another unique aspect to the Air Zoo’s restoration effort realized the only civilian museum display of the F-117. “About four years ago we found out that the Air Force was going to release four F-117s per year (for about eight years) to museums,” said Thrash. “Everyone who wanted one put in an application, so we did. Three years ago, they invited us to Tonopah [Nevada], where these airplanes live so we could see first-hand the challenges. It is really cool to say we want an F-117, it is another when you think about what’s involved.

In deciding who among the requesting institutions would receive the aircraft, Thrash said, “The Air Force concerned that a museum would get an airplane and wouldn’t have the time or money needed to restore the [demilitarized airframes stripped of all their stealthy secret stuff]. Their big question was, How long, from the time the airplane arrives will it be on display? About 10 minutes, because we do all our restoration work on the exhibit floor in the Flight Discovery Center.”

Earning his jet experience in the Air Force as an F-104 Starfighter crew chief (including the F-104 in the Air Zoo collection), Dick Klass is the F-117 restoration project manager. “When the F-177 arrived, the wings and vertical tails were off, as were all of the leading edges, which were proprietary secrets that actually belonged to Lockheed, who leased them to the Air Force.”

Receiving little more than the airframe, the restoration crew had to figure out how to fabricate 210 feet of leading and trailing edges. “And we had to figure out all the angles. There are more angles than you can shake a stick at,” said Klass. “Our problem was to connect the top and the bottom. Do you weld it? Do we make some sort of blocks that we could screw into it? One of the guys came up with the idea of using piano hinge. It adapts itself to any angle.”

When the team of volunteers gets the edges finished the way they want, they will fill the piano hinge’s nooks and crannies with a filler that has the consistency of warm butter. “It gets in between all the seams. We put it on with a spatula and push it in with a rubber gloved hand,” said Klass. “When it dries, we sand it smooth.” The team uses a heavier filler over the rivets that hold the hinge in place.

Unlike traditional jets, the F-117 doesn’t have tailpipes. Klass found a photo of the louvered trailing edge exhaust of the engines buried in the wing. Looking at the photo, Klass wondered what the white rectangles were, so he Googled F-117 exhaust. Leading the results was “Part 5: Nozzles and Exhausts” of an Aviation Week series, “A Closer Look a Stealth.” Once the team finds the right color, it will add the replica heat reflecting tiles.

Before the Air Force released the F-117s to museums, it sandblasted the radar absorbing material that coats the airframe. “They did a very poor job of it,” said Klass, pointing to hollow spots in the skin between the underlying frames. “We debated replacing the panels, but they are .125 thousandths thick, and new aluminum to replace them would cost about $3,000 a panel.”

Bondo doesn’t work well over large areas because it will bow and crack, especially with temperature changes. Looking at photos of other F-117s on museum display to suss out the solutions employed by other museums, “they all have the same [hollow-spot] problem,” Klass said, so like all the others, the Air Zoo’s F-117, called Shaba, will have hollow spots.

Pointing to the airplane’s name painted on the open door of the weapon bay, Klass said each F-117s in the Air Force fleet received a unique name. “Shaba” is Arabic for “ghost.” The signatures of many of the airplane’s maintainers and pilots surround the moniker. The pilot’s call sign was a combination of “Bandit” and ang graduation number from F-117 transition training.

“Here’s Bandit 512; he was the 512th pilot graduated to fly 117s. There were only 62 F-117s, but they flew for a long time so I’ve seen pilot numbers into the 700s,” said Klass. And with its arrival, it adds the modern era to the Air Zoo’s display of unique aircraft.

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