Pacific Aviation Museum offers hands-on WW II experience

pacific-am-3-webBy Syd Jones & KT Budde-Jones

The Pacific Aviation Museum’s newly-restored World War II aircraft maintenance shop is giving visitors hands-on experience with wartime maintenance and current aircraft restoration projects.

The museum’s Ford Island location, in the middle of Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, certainly is one of the most historically significant sites in America. The hangars that house the museum are the ones attacked by the Japanese on 7 December 1941, triggering entry of the United States into World War II.

The Museum’s displays and aircraft are currently located in Hangar 37 with plans underway for future displays to fill Hangars 79 and 54. Visitors to the museum will not have to wait until these exhibits are completed to visit Hangar 79. In fact, they will find a unique and historically appropriate attraction located there right now.

Hangar 79 dominates the museum’s property, in size as well as historical presence. The largely un-restored structure encloses two acres of floor space and, at each end, the towering doors’ blue glass windows still are riddled with bullet holes left by the Japanese attack. During the war it was a maintenance and engine repair facility, filled with the fighters, bombers and patrol aircraft based at Pearl Harbor or transiting through to the front lines.

The museum has used Hangar 79 as an aircraft restoration and exhibit construction facility since first occupying the site in February 2006. It is still filled with a number of aircraft awaiting preparation for future displays. In 2007, Mike and Carol Shealy approached the museum, asking to fund a display to highlight the huge contribution aircraft maintenance personnel have made to military aviation. Several concepts were explored, but the favorite was to restore part of Hangar 79 to its original World War II maintenance configuration, using modern day restoration activities as an interactive way of presenting the techniques and stories of the maintenance crews.

Although some shop equipment was already on site, much more would be needed to fill out the needs of a dedicated facility. Simultaneous efforts began to locate and buy the needed shop tools as well as to restore one of the original workshop bays. With no real aircraft restoration equipment in existence in Hawaii, just about everything had to come from the mainland, with the help of Matson Shipping.

One side of Hangar 79 turned out to be the best spot for the restoration area. The large, original tool crib was still there, but needed a complete rebuilding to make it serviceable again. All of the original light fixtures and window glass were still there but in need of repair, and the walls were restored to their original paint color. The whole workshop was rewired and re-equipped with pneumatic lines and regulators for air powered tools, as it had been originally.

From the beginning it was planned that all the machines and equipment would be American made; a choice in keeping with the profound American history that played out on Ford Island and the waters of Pearl Harbor. Tennsmith, NorthRidge Tools, Imperial Wheeling Machines, Daggar Tools, Snap-On Tools and others all helped with the procurement of their equipment. Aero Trader in California helped broker a deal for some used but serviceable metal forming machines. One unique find in Indiana was a fully restored South Bend lathe that still bore a tag stating “This machine conforms to the orders of the War Production Board.” It fits perfectly into the ambiance of Hangar 79 and works like new. A high tech paint booth was bought, to be installed on the other side of the hangar. It took nearly a year to locate and ship out all of the accumulated tools and equipment.

With the restoration equipment finally installed in the shop bay, preparing appropriate signs and graphics was the next stage. To make sure the shop’s “identity” was historically correct, it was important to find the original maintenance organization insignia displayed in the hangar during World War II. Despite much research, all efforts seemed to lead nowhere. The Navy historian was only able to identify a later maintenance entity. Fortunately, PAM volunteer Tommy Lau, who actually worked in 79 during the war, was able to produce a document with the long-sought insignia.

The refurbished restoration facility was named “Lt. Ted Shealy’s Restoration Shop.” Ted Shealy was an exceptional aircraft maintenance man whose naval career spanned biplane fighters in 1936 all the way to F- 4 Phantoms during the Cold War. He was stationed on Ford Island during World War II, served aboard the USS Enterprise during the Battle of Midway and would later return to Hawaii, stationed at Barbers Point, where he met his future wife, a WAVE aircraft maintenance worker. The shop is dedicated to those whose ability, dedication, perseverance and can-do attitude helped “Keep ‘em flying.”

Unlike many restoration facilities, where activities can be viewed only from a distance if at all, the Lt. Ted Shealy Restoration Shop is an interactive experience for museum visitors, giving them insights into how America’s aviation factories looked before the war, the importance of aircraft maintenance, the rapid evolution of aircraft technology and the hands on “Rosie the Riveter” experience. Visitors can picture themselves shooting rivets, supporting the war effort and feeling as though they made a difference.

It is hard, today, to imagine that we, as individuals, would have enough courage to storm the beaches of Normandy or Iwo Jima, or take off from an aircraft carrier into battle; hard to image that we could summon up the courage to put ourselves in harms way purposely. However, in the Shealy Restoration Shop, personally shooting a rivet, we can picture ourselves bucking up the rivet and the challenge of winning the war, helping us to see how we each can make a difference on the home front, even if we cannot picture ourselves on the front lines.

The current project in the restoration shop is a Stinson L-5E that was based on Ford Island late in the war, having arrived in Hawaii too late to be sent off to combat. It is the air ambulance version, capable of carrying a stretcher behind the pilot. Another mission for that type of aircraft was artillery spotting. In fact, the first American aircraft to land on Iwo Jima during the battle was a Stinson L-5 air ambulance used by the Marines to guide the naval barrage onto dug-in Japanese positions.

The museum’s L-5 was complete when donated, with even the original World War II radios still installed, but inspection of the wings, fuselage and control surfaces didn’t hint at the problems within. Years of storage in salt air, high humidity and rat infestation had taken their toll. The fuselage remained in reasonable condition but, once the fabric was removed from the wings and control surfaces, the scale of the restoration changed dramatically. Almost all the metal parts were no longer usable, even for a static display. The wooden wings had become a rat condominium, with much damage from their chewing and bodily fluids. Fortunately, the spars and most of the main ribs were still serviceable and the metal parts were good enough for pattern work. Since so much had to be replaced, the decision was made to restore it to airworthy condition, as the cost wouldn’t be significantly more and the ultimate value would be greater.

After mounting them on a “rotisserie” fixture, the wings were completely rebuilt and all the original metal parts, except for a few surviving castings, were replicated and installed. At this writing, the fabrication of the control surfaces is just about finished, and the missing litter door is in the first phase of fabrication. The unique droop aileron mechanism and leading edge slats, which gave the Stinson such good STOL performance, are completed. The restoration of the fuselage and its components will begin soon.

It is utterly unique to be restoring this Ford Island veteran in the actual workshops that were used for its maintenance during World War II. With the restoration shop up and running again, visitors can hear the faint beating of Hangar 79′s heart waiting for its turn to be restored back to its former glory.

Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm, featuring vintage aircraft, flight simulators, a restaurant and museum store.

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