Being on a waiting list for hangar space doesn’t do your aircraft any good while it’s sitting out on the ramp exposed to the elements.
Finding indoor space is particularly difficult when your airplane is 75 feet long and has a 103-foot wingspan. Members of the Gulf Coast Wing of the Commemorative Air Force know this only too well as they spent 35 years trying to find a permanent hangar for their B-17 “Texas Raiders.” The aircraft is based at William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) near Houston.
The B-17 was acquired in 1971 and the Gulf Coast Wing was formed in 1972, according to Col. Barbara Johnston, wing leader.
“She’s been out on the ramp when we’re not out doing air shows with her and the months when we are supposed to be doing maintenance is when the weather is the worst,” she says. “We kept fighting corrosion, then a few years back we decided that having a hangar was a must and put on a full court press to get one.”
The wing’s original plan was to raise the money to build a hangar of its own, but as a not-for-profit operation on a shoestring budget, that was very hard to do. The group then focused its efforts on finding space for lease. The space would have to be large enough to accommodate a fully assembled airplane as well as having room for maintenance. An old commercial hangar at the airport fit the bill.
According to the CAF’s Col. Sandy Thompson, the aircraft is constantly being worked on. “I have been with the ‘Texas Raiders’ for 20 years. When I came to this airplane it was undergoing restoration and this is the third restoration project that I have been through,” she explains.
Complying with an Airworthiness Directive for corrosion that was issued in 2001 kicked the hangar search into high gear, notes Thompson, because it involved disassembling the aircraft and doing extensive inspections to look for corrosion. Unfortunately, they found it in the wings and in the tail.
Repairs on a B-17 are never quick or inexpensive. Spare parts are hard to come by and often need to be specially fabricated. The FAA has to sign off on the method of repair and the materials used.
“It took us two years to find someone who would take the liability to manufacture the terminal end fittings for the wing spar because the molds are no longer around,” says Thompson, “and the stress capability had to be certified durable enough by the FAA. Unfortunately you just don’t go out and buy terminal end fittings for a World War II era B-17. Three of the end fittings had to be totally manufactured.”
Finding ramp space for something as large as a B-17 wasn’t an easy task either. For several years the aircraft sat tied down on the ramp outside the 1940 Air Terminal Museum at the airport. When the ramp area was excavated for a runway expansion, the B-17, which was in pieces and not on wheels, had to be relocated into a temporary hangar. Then that hangar was slated for demolition because it interfered with the signal from the ILS and the aircraft had to be moved again.
“We had a deadline to get out of there,” says Col. Ken Hyman, who is one of the pilots for “Texas Raiders.”
Maintenance and restoration volunteers are divided into teams dedicated to specific aircraft systems. Those teams worked feverishly to get the aircraft ready for relocation.
“I was the team leader for the landing gear,” he says. “It had been on jackstands for five years. When we got it back on the wheels – with great difficulty, mind you — it was as if a great weight was lifted off my shoulders because we were now able to tow it.”
In the wee hours of Aug. 31 the great move began. Volunteers and airport staff, who had to wait until the last flight of the day had arrived since the move involved crossing an active taxiway, had to push the airplane, sans outboard wings, tail and engines, for about 50 yards before a tug could be secured to tow it across the field to the new hangar. The B-17 rolled into its new home around 2 a.m.
Now the focus is on getting the airplane back into airworthy condition so that the group can resume revenue flights.
“We have to do this to recoup the money we spent on the restoration,” says Thompson, who notes that “Texas Raiders” could be back in the air by next summer.
The new space is just what they need to accomplish that goal, says Alan Feltis, maintenance director.
“It’s hard to work out in the elements, and even in the last temporary hangar there were issues because it didn’t have any doors or running water so you couldn’t even wash your hands,” he says. “The new hangar has two very large shop rooms and five offices and a meeting room. It is the new home for the Gulf Coast Wing of the CAF.”
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