Aircraft Reincarnation Through Air Zoo Restoration

By Scott Spangler on November 29th, 2021

When it comes to aircraft, restoration and reincarnation may seem like synonyms, but there is a significant difference that transcends semantics.

Restoration is rehabilitating an airplane to a former point in its existence. Certainly, this is what the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Experience is doing for US Navy aircraft of World War II salvaged from Lake Michigan, where more than 17,000 naval aviators received their initial carrier qualifications on the USS Wolverine and USS Sable, coal-powered side-wheel passenger steamers resurfaced with a flat top.

Reincarnation is a step beyond restoration. It revives the airplane’s soul by searching out and connecting with the people who originally gave it life. If they have succumbed to time, their memories and contributions to the resurrected airframes survive in the consciousness of their relatives and descendants. Identifying these people and sharing their contributions to the airplane’s life is part of the Air Zoo’s dedicated reincarnation effort.

Looking at the FM-2 Wildcat in the rotisserie that aligns and supports the front half of the fuselage while the restoration team builds and connects a new rear fuselage and tail feathers to it, Greg Ward, the Air Zoo’s aircraft restoration manager, explains how the Wildcat ended up on the bottom of Lake Michigan three days after Christmas 1944.

Ensign William Forbes lost power on the third of the required five takeoffs from the USS Sable. It rolled off the flight deck, turned upside down after it landed in the lake, and the ship’s port paddlewheel broke the Wildcat in two just behind the pilot seat. Strapped in that seat, Ensign Forbes “held his breath for nearly two minutes,” Ward said. “He got out of the cockpit, got picked up, survived the war, and lived a long, wonderful life in Fresno, California.”

The Wildcat spent 68 years on the bottom of Lake Michigan. “We’ve been working on it for about eight years, and we have maybe two or three years to go,” said Air Zoo CEO Troy Thrash. “When I got here in 2013, we didn’t have any other restoration projects,” Thrash said, and when the team learned about the FM-2 Wildcat, it wanted to submit a restoration proposal to the Navy.

“I said, yeah, we can, but we’re going to hang our hat on two things. The Navy already knows the quality of our work,” Trash said, referring to another Lake Michigan find, the SBD-3 Dauntless that’s long been on display in the World War II wing. “In keeping with our new missions, we’re going to restore the FM-2 differently than we or anyone else has done it; we’re going to do it on the exhibit floor where people can not only watch the volunteers work, they will have the opportunity to interact with them. Some days people are asking so many questions about the work they are doing the volunteers don’t get much done.”

Volunteers do most of the restoration work, Ward said, pointing at the people working around the shop. “Not all of them are [airframe and powerplant] mechanics. That guy over there is a financial analyst. They’re just people who like to work with their hands, like to work on airplanes, and love to work with other people who love to work with their hands on airplanes.” Most are recruited by word of mouth, and a good number of them have built their own airplanes, and several of them have won trophies for their craftsmanship at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.

Restoring the Wildcat “created the mother of all challenges for our team,” Ward said. The Eastern Aircraft division of General Motors built the Grumman single-seat fighter during the war. “No one has ever said, ‘Let’s build the front half of an airplane and then build the back half, and then figure out how we can attach the two.” But that’s what they team had to do.

Part of the challenge was managing the stresses between the two halves. Every time they worked on it, the stress of the two halves warped the frame where they came together. The rotisserie, designed and built by a volunteer who’s a veterinarian, solved that problem.

And then there were unexpected and welcome surprises. “All of [the fuselage] stringers were extruded by the company that made them during the war,” Ward said. “It’s had several different owners since then, but when I called and gave them the part number, they said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got those dies and can make them.”

The volunteers’ work is guided by plans and technical manuals and other documents acquired from a variety of sources, the US Navy and its National Museum of Naval Aviation as well as others who have restored siblings of the same make and model. “A lot of times we get drawings from the 1940s, blow them up, and discover we can’t read them,” said Thrash. “That’s just a piece of the puzzle, and if we can’t fix it, we make it.”

Making it is sometimes a matter of beating flat aluminum into shape on a hand-carved wood form that recreates the compound curves where the fuselage becomes the vertical stabilizer. “That’s the way I’ve always done it,” said Ward, who’s been at the Air Zoo for 33 years. “Now we use computers. Dan [Brant, deputy restoration manager] is really good at CAD drawings, and he saves us weeks and months of work by whipping them out on CAD and emailing the file to the waterjet cutting guy in Kalamazoo, who calls when the parts are ready for pickup.”

Picking up a dented and unrestorable curve of large diameter ducting that fed air to the Wildcat’s oil cooler, Ward said creating a new one would be more than a challenge. “General Motors has big 3D scanning equipment—they built this airplane back in the day—and they donated a 3D scan of it. Now we have a digital copy of it, and we used a 3D printer to make the form block and formed flat metal around it.”

Somethings only an original part will do, because making magnesium wheels for the SBD is beyond the their capabilities. “I bought these wheels cheap from another museum [that flies its SBD]. Being magnesium, you can’t get brakes for them, so they switched to Hellcat wheels and brakes, and that made them available.” The Air Zoo team didn’t worry about brakes because airworthiness is not the restoration (or reincarnation) goal.

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One Response to “Aircraft Reincarnation Through Air Zoo Restoration”

  1. Aircraft Reincarnation Through Air Zoo Restoration - Jetwhine.com Says:

    Cube Toronto

    When it comes to aircraft, restoration and reincarnation are not synonums when it reconnects with the people who gave life to the aircraft.

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