Restoring the classics: Maintenance team revives old planes (Thursday, March 25, 2010)

Rebecca Martinez/staff

WEYERS CAVE — The maintenance hangar at Classic Aviation Services in the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport complex is like a living museum gallery full of glistening aircraft from several generations, their wings crossing gracefully throughout the room.

The crown jewel is the 1937 Lockheed Electra 12A in the corner.

“It’s very similar to the plane Amelia Earhart was lost in,” said maintenance manager Steve Bradley.

In fact, Classic Aviation mechanic David Kihlmire talked shop and swapped parts with Georgia-based retired airline pilot Joe Shepherd, who refurbished another plane of its kind for the movie “Amelia,” which was released last year.

Bradley said it’s a prime example of an Art Deco-era plane.

“It’s a very classy airplane. This is the corporate airplane that this became,” he said, pointing across a sleek cream-and-burgundy Cessna from the early 1950s to a seven-passenger Beechcraft King Air dual-engine turbine powered plane that had been built in the 1980s, refurbished in the last decade and is now owned by a private corporation.

This Lockheed Electra was badly damaged after the landing gear malfunctioned, and the owner asked that it be completely refurbished, inside and out. Among scores of other repairs, this meant removing, reforming and replacing each sheet of metal on the plane’s exterior.

“It’s basically going to be a brand new 1937 airplane,” said Kihlmire, who hopes to see the plane fly in a future air show in Oshkosh, Wisc. “It’s a labor of love.”

The plane remains wingless and has no interior. To date, Kihlmire estimates the team has spent 7,000 hours on the project. He estimates, conservatively, that there are at least 12,000 hours to go.

Just outside the hangar is an enormous silver Grumman Albatross from the 1950s decorated with rainbow striped with a diving pinup girl near the nose. The amphibious plane, which stands about two stories high, has wings, propellers and an enormous hull, which came in handy when the Air Force used it for rescue operations at sea.

Kihlmire said there is corrosion in one wing, which will take a while to repair, but he’d rather refurbish classic plane than repair new ones.

“This is my niche. There’s not many people around that do it anymore,” he said.

There is a new Piper Meridian plane being inspected in the garage, but it looks at home with the classic Cessna planes — one from around the late 1940s and late 1960s — standing on either side of the refurbished Beechcraft King Air.

“You can take an airplane like this, you can make it look like new,” said Bradley, adding the difference between a love of working on cars versus planes is cost. “Unless it’s a classic like an old Corvette, you just go get a new one.”

Bradley said business has slowed because of the economic downturn, but they manage to keep busy with newer and classic planes.

“We do some light jet work,” said Bradley, adding that they occasionally help with repairs from the main airport. “We’re diverse and we need to be because of the business.”

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About gumshuz

I'm a writer and journalist living in Wyoming. Audio is my passion. My reporting has aired on Naitonal Public Radio, Wyoming Public Radio, BBC/PRI, APM and WAMU. My writing has been published in The News Leader, the Daily News-Record and The Star-Ledger. I deal in Americana and the human condition.
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