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Behind the hangar doors

Hidden treasures in the restoration facility at Wright-Patterson AFB

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio is a massive campus.


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    The Junkers JU-52 trimotor with its characteristic corrugated fuselage and wings was first built in the 1930s. The aircraft remained serviceable for more than a quarter-century. Photography by David Tulis
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    Cobwebs on the nose gear and tire indicate little movement since the U.S. Air Force model NT-33A-51 Lockheed T–33A Shooting Star arrived in the restoration hangar in 1962.
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    The U.S. Air Force celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2022.
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    Lower gear door stenciled with Calspan Flight Research Crew Chief M.A. Sears on the two-place trainer flown by pilot R.P. Harper.
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    The T–33 model’s maiden flight was in 1948 and production included 5,691 aircraft for training, drone directing, target towing, and even as a combat aircraft in some countries, according to the museum.

Covering 8,000 acres (12.5 square miles), it is divided into two areas—A and B—which are separated by Ohio State Road 444. Tucked down in Area B are three National Museum of the U.S. Air Force restoration hangars; unassuming, somewhat neglected appearing, but sizeable hangars. What these hangars hold, however, is not inferior. Here rest aircraft, aircraft parts, missiles, and crates of parts and pieces that are historically significant and in various stages of existence. If you are a movie buff, think of the final scene of the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. See the crate containing the ark being nonchalantly parked inside a forgotten facility? That’s how it feels inside the NMUSAF restoration hangars. Cobwebs cling to the hangar doors; tired tires lie flat against the concrete floor; bombed-out cockpits gape open in remembrance of past horrors; and wooden crates are marked with cryptic labels that hint of iconic parts within. However, there is life in other parts of these hangars. Those aircraft deemed salvageable—important to preserve—are in line for their makeovers. They can be as iconic as the actual B–17 Memphis Belle, which spent 13 years here being painstakingly restored, or the 1917 Curtiss JN–4D currently being slowly put back together by museum restoration lead Casey Simmons (see “Aviation Archeologist,” below). “Preserving these aircraft and putting them on display for the public to view is an important way to connect the stories of the women and men who have served,” says Simmons. “It is such an honor to be one of the individuals that the Air Force has chosen to entrust the preservation of their history for future generations to study. We are preserving history.”

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Lead Restoration Specialist Casey Simmons is restoring a 1917 Curtiss JN–4D Jenny. On his list of things to do: wing fittings and wing wires waiting to be cleaned. The fuselage undergoing preservation/restoration. Circled parts are the rear instrument panel original hardware with electrical wires that go to the cockpit lamps. Original rear seat with newly fabricated bottom cushion (the original cushion was not present). Cleaned original fuselage turnbuckles with safety wire wraps. Simmons often relies on old photographs as a main source of guidance for his work.

Aviation archaeologist

Restoring history one detail at a time

Casey Simmons grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and like many kids, he loved building aircraft models, especially ones of the famous B–17, the Memphis Belle. So it was a dream come true that he was one of the restoration specialists on the 13-year resurrection of the iconic bomber at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. He has a degree in anthropology from Wright State University and after graduation served as a ranger at Dayton Heritage National Park. On weekends, he volunteered as a docent at the NMUSAF and got his airframe and powerplant certificate. In 2008, he started full-time at the restoration hangars, where aviation artifacts lie in wait for their return to their former glory. Currently Simmons is working on the restoration of a 1917 Curtiss JN–4D, which was literally in thousands of pieces when restoration began. “I’m an archaeologist of aviation, I guess; I bring back old things,” he says. The restoration process begins with gathering as much information from the U.S. Air Force archives as possible, and especially valuable are any period photographs. “We collect everything we can about them, we learn their secrets. It can be overwhelming but then I break it down, piece by piece. First there’s just a panel, then a seat, and before you know it you have an airplane.” —JSW

and more

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    A two-seat, twin-rotor Kellett XR–8 helicopter built in the United States during World War II. The McDonnell Douglas twin-engine F–15 Streak Eagle jet fighter, so named because of its lack of paint, broke eight time-to-climb records in 1975.
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    The ongoing restoration includes the tedious removal of paint applied to the jet post-record.
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    Aviation artifacts are on display and in various stages of preservation at the National Museum, US Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio, July 21, 2022. Photo by David Tulis.
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    Museum restoration volunteer Gary Guthrie said “every ounce of paint” was removed from the airframe to help lighten it.
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    The X–32A Joint Strike Fighter aircraft that looks like “Jaws.” The nose intake was critical to the aircraft’s design proposal.
Julie Walker

Julie Summers Walker

AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.

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