Keeping Old Aircraft New

24 August 15

Cubs, Clippers, Stearmans, and Staggerwings! Know what these names have in common? If you do, you’re a vintage aircraft aficionado (like us). Meanwhile, novices or casual fans might only hear these names during an air show or see them in a passing glance on a nametag in an air museum.

To the people who know and love these special antiques they represent living, breathing links to history they believe must be remembered. So the aircraft must be preserved. Unfortunately, when it comes to keeping this flying history flying, replacing the vintage mechanic’s knees might be easier than finding the right replacement part for an old historic airplane.

History Written in Aluminum and Steel

A WW2 B-17 Bomber owned by the Experiment Aircraft Association (EAA), nicknamed Aluminum Overcast, is history that you can see, touch, walk through, and even fly in.

Unlike the records you might keep on your car, manufacture, flight, and maintenance records of aircraft are legally required records so the detailed histories of many vintage aircraft, especially military planes, can read like a great book.

Between 1935 and May 1945, Boeing Aircraft produced 12,732 B-17s. Of these aircraft, 4,735 were lost during combat missions. Even with a loss rate of 37%, aircrews liked the well-named B-17 “Flying Fortress” for its ability to take the heavy combat hits and still carry its crew home safely.

Manufactured in 1945 just before the war ended, the Aluminum Overcast sold as surplus for $750 in 1946! The nearly new airplane then flew more than a million miles as a cargo hauler, aerial mapping platform, and even did pest control.

A group of investors who wanted to preserve the heritage of Flying Fortresses bought the plane in 1978. After just five years the economic reality of just maintaining a vintage plane, let alone the cost of restoration, made the group donate the antique bomber to the EAA.

After ten years and thousands of hours of work by staff and volunteers, the plane is on display at EAA’s headquarters in Oshkosh, Wisconsin when it isn’t touring the United States.

Ticket to Ride

Rides in passenger-certified vintage aircraft are not cheap, but for those reliving a part of their life, as is still possible for the last of the WW2 vets, or a descendant seeing what their relative saw and felt as a crewmember, the experience, and the cost to produce it, is almost priceless.

Restoring a seventy-year-old plane is so difficult and expensive that as of May 2015 out of the more than 12,732 B-17s produced before the war’s end fewer than 100 B-17 airframes exist and only 10 aircraft are still able to fly.

EAA volunteers extensively rebuilt major parts of the Aluminum Overcast’s interior including the radio compartment, waist gunners’ stations, tail turret, navigator’s station, and cabin flooring. They had to find original equipment such as a Norden bombsight. Where authentic components were not available, patient researchers found realistic replicas. While the aircraft is about 95% authentic, the rebuilders added improved gear such as modern avionics to meet FAA airworthiness requirements for passenger aircraft.

That’s All, Brother

A transport aircraft named That’s All, Brother that led the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, more than 70 years ago was discovered in an aircraft boneyard in Wisconsin earlier this year.

The not-for-profit vintage aircraft organization Commemorative Air Force (CAF) launched a Kickstarter funding campaign last June to save the plane from being scrapped for parts. Within 48 hours the CAF raised their goal of $75,000 just to acquire the plane. To begin restoration, the CAF is trying to raise $250,000 on Kickstarter!

After collecting aircraft for nearly fifty years, the CAF now ranks as one of the largest vintage aircraft collections in the world. The CAF has approximately 9,000 members and a fleet of almost 160 airplanes representing more than 60 different types including several from foreign countries, and from military conflicts since World War II.

Keep the Antiques Flying!

The oldest vintage aircraft group in the U.S. is the Antique Airplane Association (AAA). The AAA organized in 1953 to “Keep the Antiques Flying.” One of the ways the AAA does that is by publishing the Best Practices Guide for Maintaining Aging General Aviation Airplanes. Developed in 2003 as the result of cooperation between the FAA, manufacturers, vintage aircraft clubs, and owners groups, the Guide helps restorationists preserve aging historic aircraft to keep alive the stories they tell.

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