'Restoring memories' with the AMC Museum

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Samuel Taylor
  • 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
On the tarmac of the Dover Air Force Base, Del., at the Air Mobility Command Museum, aircraft of a past generation come to their final resting place.

After careers spent soaring across the skies of Europe, Asia and the Pacific, they now spend their days under the observation of museum patrons, while their stories are tirelessly recounted by tour guides and veterans. Accompanied by sounds of the golden age of swing and jazz playing through museum speakers, the fighters, cargo carriers and troop transports are testaments to the military conflicts of yesteryear.

Yet the planes serve as indication to something else. The freshly painted interiors, refurbished cockpits and hundreds of historically accurate flight instruments are evidence of the work of dedicated custodians.

These custodians are the veterans, mechanics and airplane enthusiasts that comprise the AMC Museum's aircraft restoration volunteers, responsible for the day-to-day upkeep and preservation of the retired planes.

"This is an amazing group of volunteers; we have retired senior officers working alongside retired sergeants, competing to see who gets dirtiest on the job," said Michael Leister, the AMC Museum director. "We couldn't keep our doors open without them."

The volunteers, averaging approximately 70 years of age, perform everything from minor paint touch-ups to total construction of the aircraft. With the exception of the newer planes that flew to Dover AFB, the older models were shipped by plane or helicopter, and had to be partially, or totally, put together in a hangar behind the museum.

"Each plane is like a puzzle," said Charlie Tanner, a restoration volunteer. "Once we have the parts, we work off aircraft manuals, line drawings and the suggestions of those who were involved with the aircraft."

Some aircraft arrive in poor condition, challenging the volunteers to restore them from the ground up. Some aircraft, like the C-121, were recovered under rather unusual circumstances.

Our C-121 had been converted to an open-for-business cocktail lounge, Mr. Tanner said.

However, the volunteers don't always receive the parts they need to completely assemble the aircraft. The project then becomes a scavenger hunt with volunteers searching worldwide for the right dial or lever. The mish-mash of parts used has led some volunteers to affectionately refer to the airplanes as "jigsaw planes."

"We're always searching online auctions and contacting scrap yards to find what we need," said Mike Wood, a restoration volunteer. "If we can't find exactly the right dial or gauge, we'll manufacture an exact copy until we can find an original. We're just lucky the planes don't have to fly as well as they look."

The manufacturing is not limited to small parts and pieces.

The volunteers' latest project is rebuilding a Waco CG-4A Combat Glider from wood scraps and a blueprint. One of 13,903 ever built, the glider likely flew over Normandy, France, or during Operation Market Garden during World War II. Now in the hands of the restorers, the glider is one of approximately a dozen of its kind remaining in the world.

Once the glider is finished, it is expected to be added to the AMC Museum's collection, Mr. Leister said.

For the restorers, it will be a bittersweet occasion.

"We gave birth to this aircraft, so we'll be proud to let others enjoy it," said Bill Lee, a restoration volunteer. "But after we let it go, there will be a feeling of 'now what?'"

Yet it is that feeling of pride that keeps the volunteers happy in their work, Mr. Lee said. Furthermore, they can help veterans relive times spent serving their country.

"It's always a pleasure to be there when a veteran pokes his head through the airplane door and says 'I remember flying in this aircraft,'" Mr. Wood said. "One man spent 45 minutes telling his grandchildren how he entered a C-119 Flying Boxcar (like the one displayed at the museum) through the front door while on the ground, and jumped out the back door while in the air."

Through restoring these planes, we're also restoring and honoring the memories of these service members, Mr. Wood said.