Restoring aviation?s past to fly today

Droning noises coming from planes in the distance struck fear in the hearts of many during World War II. The planet was in a years-long battle, and the sound of aircraft approaching could signal an enemy attack, as it did at Pearl Harbor.

Although they were utilized in combat situations more than 60 years ago and now are antiques, some of these warbirds and other older planes still are around today, although not all of them are in the best condition.

This is where a Newton-based company, Wichita Air Services Inc. Warbird Division can come in, restoring ?our aviation history one champion at a time,? according to a Wichita Air Services Inc. pamphlet. The Newton branch specializes in restoring and maintaining vintage aircraft?predominantly those from the World War II era.

?The niche we?re in here requires a special kind of person,? said Fred Bruns, president of Wichita Air Solutions Inc. and vice president of Wichita Air Services Leasing, LLC. ?It?s not an inexpensive thing to undertake for a customer. We try to make everything as good?if not better?than the manufacturers. It?s not just a job.?

The company can work on one aircraft at a time, and it?s not a quick process. They take a lot of care and put a great deal of professionalism into their work. Currently, they?re restoring a Lockheed 10A ?Electra,? which was made in 1937 by the Lockheed Aircraft Co. in California. Its wingspan is quite large at 55 feet, even greater than that of an average pterodactyl (which spans 35 feet). The plane can seat 12 and has two 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines.

Wichita Air Services has been working on the plane, which has quite a history, for about four years.

?All day, every day,? Bruns said.

When completed, which is projected to be around May or June 2015, the plane will be a completely operational, air-worthy vehicle. It will be flown back to the Czech Republic, where it will be displayed and flown at a museum.

Bata Shoe Co. of Zlin, Czechoslovakia, first purchased the plane, and, as a promotional event, flew it around the world. After that, it operated out of Zlin.

To prevent its capture by the Germans, the plane was flown to Poland in March 1939, just before the Ger?mans, under the dictatorship of Adolph Hitler, occupied Czechoslovakia. The plane?s next adventures included flying to Yugoslavia, Italy and Paris.

It was put into service during the war, as it was used by the British government, serving as a VIP transport, cruising between London, Amsterdam and Paris. Then in May 1939, the plane was used by the Royal Canadian Air Force throughout the war.

After the war, a number of people and companies owned the craft, including child movie star Margaret O?Brien.

Working with the planes isn?t as much about the history of the plane as it is about working with one?s hands, rebuilding and refurbishing things, said Leeb VonFange, shop manager.

?It?s about refurbishing things that were supposedly written off,? VonFange said. They usually learn about the plane?s history while they?re working on it, he added.

The restoration of the Electra has included quite a bit of work, as it wasn?t in the greatest condition when it arrived in Newton. The company replaced thousands of rivets, all the fuselage skins, all skins on the tail including the rudders, horizontals, elevators and stabilizers, all new interior, all new instruments and electrical with all new wiring.

The registration letters on the side of the plane are the original Czech Republic registration letters. They even put a Bata Shoe Co. logo on the nose.

?It was one of those things,? Bruns said. ?We never envisioned it taking this long.?

He added if they find a problem and recognize it, then it needs to be fixed.

?If you want to display it, that?s one thing, but if you want it to fly, that?s a completely different animal,? Bruns said.

Bruns believes what makes restoring the planes interesting is the history behind them and the fact that they’re preserving history.

?It?s something that?s very interesting,? he said ?To preserve history?there?s something kind of special to that. If you?re looking for instant gratification, this is not the business you want to be in. But it?s a real thrill to watch it fly the first time.?

The Electra Wichita Air Services is working on is a sister plane to the one Amelia Earhart flew when she vanished in July 2, 1937, attempting to set a record by flying around the world?s equator. It?s basically the same plane, Bruns said.

A group, led by Ric Gillespie, called The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), had a piece of sheet metal they think was from Earhart?s plane. This piece of metal was discovered in 1991 on the island of Nikumaroro, according to news.discovery.com. So TIGHAR came to Newton Oct. 7 to compare it to the Lockheed 10A Electra.

?They just wanted to confirm it was from the same kind of plane,? Bruns said. “After coming here, that gave a little fuel to his fire.?

Gillespie, who has been researching Earhart?s doomed flight for 26 years, plans to return to the island where he found the sheet metal to see if he can locate the entire plane, Bruns said.

?According to members of TIGHAR, which has long been investigating the last, fateful flight taken by Earhart 77 years ago, the aluminum sheet is a patch of metal installed on the Electra during the aviator?s eight-day stay in Miami, which was the fourth stop on her attempt to circumnavigate the globe,? news.discovery.com stated.

The TIGHAR website stated TIGHAR research has identified, ?to a high degree of certainty,? this piece of debris is from Earhart?s plane.

In time, there might be a Discovery Channel documentary on the subject, Bruns said.

Beginnings

Wichita Air Services Inc. was incorporated in 1988 and started as a corporate flight department for Jack DeBoer, a hotelier, who started Residence Inns, Hotel at Old Town, Candlewood Hotels and Value Place, Bruns said.

At one point, the company restored an early 1940s military trainer for DeBoer; it was his personal plane.

?We actually had a business spin off from that, which is what this business in Newton is doing now,? Bruns said.

The corporate flight department at Jabara Airport in Wichita, where they still provide business transportation for DeBoer. The restoration part of the business in Newton came about in 1992.

?And we?ve been at it ever since,” Bruns said.

Workers and parts

All of the employees are Air Frame and Power Plant Certified, VonFange said. To get A&P certified by the Federal Aviation Admini?stration takes two years at a technical college in Wichita, he added. This certification gives a person the background to do repairs and work on certified aircraft in the United States.

Their work is kind of a niche, VonFange said. It’s somewhat of an art to reproduce parts that aren’t made anymore for these planes. The skills aren’t taught in schools anymore, and they can?t purchase reproduction parts.

?We generally have to make replacement parts ourselves,? VonFange said.

In order to reproduce the parts, they need to have the plane?s prints.

?So, with the prints, we can reproduce the part,? VonFange said.

With the Electra, they were able to get the prints from a man in California. Sometimes prints come from the Smithsonian or people who own that type of aircraft.

?Through contacts, we?re able to get the information we need to make the parts,? VonFange said.,

Other projects

The Electa isn’t the only plane the business has worked on and/or restored. Another included a crashed Hell Diver bomber from World War II. Some of the remnants of the plane are in the Wichita Air Services office area.

?We did the fuselage on it, and then the customer took it,? VonFange said.

The business has won a variety of awards on restorations, including many Oshkosh awards, such as Oshkosh Reserve Grand Champion WWII for a SNJ-5C, N964JD in 1987; Oshkosh Gold Wrench Grand Champion Post WWII for a T-34, N55192 in 1993; and National Aviation Hall of Fame & Rolls Royce Best of the Best Trophy for a J2F-4, NL63850 in 2007.

?A recent example of our diversity was the reassembly of a Boeing B-47 Stratofor?tress for display at the Kansas Aviation Museum,? the pamphlet stated. ?We can handle a vast spectrum of projects and enjoy taking on new challenges.?

Information

For more information or to get your plane restored, call 316-630-9955, email Bruns at fred@wasi.kscoxmail.com or visit their Facebook page.

by Wendy Nugent