By BILL WALKER
The surest sign of winter in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., is the appearance of some unusually big birds migrating south. These birds, the Collings Foundation B-17G and B-24J, fly in every year for their annual maintenance appointment.
On a sunny Saturday this past November, the public got its yearly opportunity for an up-close view of the bombers and also the Collings TP-51C Mustang at American Aero Services, based at New Smyrna Beach Municipal Airport (EVB).
The open house is sponsored by company President Gary Norville who noted, “New Smyrna is very well known for housing the Collings bombers. Like the snowbirds, they come down during the wintertime. Before we had the open house people would come up to the fence and look through. They still do. But now we set a day when they can come in and look around.”
Norville, a laid-back chief executive who favors an American Aero T-shirt and jeans as work attire (pictured below), is an important figure in warbird restoration. Perhaps half a dozen businesses in the United States regularly do ground-up restoration of warbirds and Norville’s firm is one of the best known.
“The restoration community is small,” he said. “It’s just such a small niche of people that are into the high-end warbirds that there’s not enough to go around. And unless you’ve got a good customer base or a couple of good main customers, it’s very difficult to be in the business and stay solely in restoration and maintenance.”
At the open house the 10,000-square foot hangar was packed with current projects. A two-seat P-51 was parked near the front door. Nearby a center section from a PBY flying boat was laid out for restoration and beside it the wings for a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter. A few feet away, a Stinson L-1 Vigilant observation craft fuselage awaited the next phase in a two-year restoration.
Work was underway on a 1928 Army artillery piece and a German Flak 88 antiaircraft cannon. And part of a large rocket lay on the hangar floor (pictured below).
“What you can see here is the V-2 motor mount, the turbo pump and the nozzle,” Norville said. “We are building the entire rocket body from scratch.”
“We are currently in the original building built by George and Jenny Baker when they started the business in 1980-1981,” Norville said. “In 1986 I came here from the Spartan School of Aeronautics. We built the Hawker Sea Fury and a Mustang restoration. I slowly worked my way into managing and running the business. In 1998 George and Jenny offered for me to take over the business and I did. Our first restoration was the Collings Foundation F4U-5NL Corsair. We were already maintaining the bombers for the foundation, so we just transitioned into the new company maintaining them.”
Norville noted that one of his mentors, Jack Roush, a NASCAR team owner and warbird owner, taught him “if you have a love for something and if you surround yourself with the best people you can find, you’re going to have a successful business. I’ve found a great team of people and surrounded myself with them. And we’ve put out some very beautiful aircraft and other artifacts.”
His favorite projects, he said, “include the award-winning P51-D we built for Jack Roush, another D-model Mustang for a local gentlemen here and the A-36A, which is only one of three in existence and one of the two flying. We recently finished that and took Grand Champion Warbird at Oshkosh. Now we have the Focke-Wulf 190 and we’re also doing an F6F-3 Hellcat. What’s cool about that is that it’s the first time that a Hellcat has come back to New Smyrna in 70 years since it was a Naval Air Station.”
To win a Grand Champion award, such as the A-36 restoration earned, has become increasingly difficult, Norville said.
“Now the bar has been raised so high that it has to look like it is in theater or coming right out of the factory,” he explained. “That means all of the original inspection stamps, hardware, brass safety wire, line markings, hose markings as they would have been 70 years ago.”
Norville’s interest in aviation came through his uncle Fred Morris. “He would always take me flying on Saturdays over Lower New York and upstate New Jersey,” Norville said. “Every Saturday he would go out for that $100 hamburger and fly all over and visit different antique airports. When it was time to take a direction in life I knew I enjoyed aircraft and World War II aircraft, so I went to the Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, Okla., and did the 24-month class there.”
Norville once owned a Citabria and has taken flight lessons, but never got a license to fly. “I started and stopped so many times,” he said. “I just wasn’t ever comfortable with myself. I love going flying with other people — people that I’m comfortable with. I guess it’s one of the greatest mysteries in Gary Norville’s life.”
Norville understands the legacy of the aircraft that American Aero maintains and the sacrifices of the airmen who flew the planes. “Veterans can come out here and families can come out and say, ‘you know this is what grandpa used to do,’” he said.
One of Norville’s prime concerns is the impact of federal regulations on the future of the restoration business.
He notes that for both the professionals who maintain these airplanes and the pilots who fly them safety is paramount.
“If it’s not ready to fly, it’s not gonna fly,” he said. “I just hope that the FAA would have that mindset and just let it keep going for other generations to come and not permanently ground a plane simply because it’s old. That’s kinda like saying you gotta put your 1944 Willys to the side because it’s old. If you maintain the airplane, it’s going to last forever.”
For more information: AmericanAeroServices.com