The strange things restorers find in old aircraft.
- By Bettina H. Chavanne
- Air & Space magazine, May 2008
(Page 2 of 4)
Flak Bait's entire floor was covered with 10-millimeter-thick armor plating. "It was like a high-grade-steel throw rug," says Nazzaro. "It slowed down the airplane because it was so heavy, but it was necessary to prevent flak from coming up through the floor and killing people." When they pulled up the armor plating, Nazzaro says, the restorers found "mud from airfields 50 years back under there."
They also saw wooden matches strewn everywhere, as well as automobile ashtrays riveted to the interior. "These guys were smoking their brains out," Nazzaro says. "After a dangerous mission like the ones they flew, wouldn't you?"
Details That Set the Stage
Some of the stowaways uncovered at Garber illuminate not the history of the individual aircraft but rather the time and place in which it served. Last July, intern Eric Lawrence was cleaning out a Curtiss F9C-2 Sparrowhawk, a small, airship-based fighter that the Navy used in the 1930s for reconnaissance patrols along the U.S. coasts. When he was working in the fuselage tail cone, Lawrence came across a broken pencil, inscribed with the words "Hoover for President, 1928."
Evocative items seemed to pour out of the sole surviving Japanese Aichi M6A1 Seiran, a World War II bomber designed to be stashed in a submarine, its wings folded, until the sub surfaced for launch. Allied forces discovered a Seiran at the Fukuyama training base after World War II and brought it to California on a U.S. carrier. It was eventually donated to the Smithsonian.
The restoration "was an unusually long project," says Nazzaro, lasting from 1989 to 2000. "It's probably the most accurately restored and one of the finest restorations of any Japanese World War II aircraft in the world. You get inside that airplane and you go right back to 1945."
During the process of removing, cleaning, and cataloging every bolt and rivet in the Seiran, a number of items turned up. "We scraped up the dirt in the bilge, filtered and cleaned it, and found these artifacts," says Nazzaro, holding up several tools and plastic bags filled with metal scraps. One of the tools is a hand-made bucking bar, which is placed on the other side of a piece of metal being riveted in order to dampen the shock of the rivet gun. "You can see an actual finger notch here," says Nazzaro, gripping the Seiran tool to show how fingers fit the bucking bar. "It was probably made for a small hand, maybe a woman or a student. That tells a story for me."
The metal scraps the restorers found in the Seiran are small and round and have sharp edges. "Someone probably realized he needed a hole drilled through a bulkhead but didn't have a hole saw," Nazzaro says. "He used a standard drill instead, and drilled 50 or so holes close together and then knocked it out. He didn't even bother to smooth the edges so it wouldn't cut whatever wires were passing through here. An American airplane would have had a rubber grommet around that hole."
In an inboard-wing fuel tank, restorers found inspection progress records, a worker time card, and a warehouse receipt.