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Giving History a Hand with Vintage Aircraft Restoration

P-51 Mustang in flight during an air show at Langley Air Force Base, in Virginia. | Wikimedia Commons/ U.S. Air Force
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Relive the excitement of man’s first steps on the moon and the long journey it took to get there with 20 new hours of out of this world programming on KCET's “Summer of Space"  Watch out for “American Experience: Chasing the Moon” and a KCET-exclusive first look at "Blue Sky Metropolis," four one-hour episodes that examine Southern California’s role in the history of aviation and aerospace. 

Escaping the ground, freedom is found as silver wings touch blue sky. Pilots say there is nothing on earth that can compare to flying. For those who painstakingly restore vintage aircraft, the story begins, and history unfolds even before the plane returns to the skies.

“I cut my teeth on tow bars and P-51 Mustangs,” says Matt Nightingale. Restoring older military planes has been in Nightingale’s blood since boyhood. He grew up at the Chino airport and restores vintage airplanes, following the footsteps of his great-uncle and father. He began his own restoration business, California AeroFab, after working at the Planes of Fame Air Museum. California AeroFab began in Nightingale’s garage, but is now based at the Chino Airport.

Connecting each plane to its past is a process. Nightingale explains that “each plane has a unique serial number that enables you to trace the plane back to its origin. The military has kept records on most planes, which can be accessed through the Smithsonian. Some planes have log books that show where the planes were stationed and give details of [their] history. If I am really fortunate, I meet the pilots and hear first-hand accounts of their missions. Each military plane is an important part of history and is connected to hundreds or thousands of lives.” Nightingale has worked on hundreds of planes, but the following aircraft stand out in his mind because each tells a unique story, connecting all of us to the past.

Weapons Have No Loyalty

A Curtiss Hawk 75 | Flickr/Alan Wilson/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
A Curtiss Hawk 75 | Flickr/Alan Wilson/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Curtiss Hawk 75 that flew during WWII is memorable because that particular plane flew on both sides of the war. “This plane was sold to the British specifically earmarked to go to France. "The control panel is all in French,” Nightingale says. “It was flown in France against Germany in 1939 [and] 1940. Then it was flown by the Germans against the allies. This is the only plane I know of that actually flew on both sides of the same war.” The plane is one of only 100 planes in the first production batch sent to the French Air Force. It is now part of The Fighter Collection museum in Duxford, England. 

Story of Survival

Production of the Curtiss P-40B, a single-seat pursuit fighter plane, began in January of 1941. The plane Nightingale’s team restored was one of only 113 of these planes that were ever built. This particular Curtiss P-40B was sent to Hawaii to become part of the 6th pursuit squadron, 18th pursuit group. As fate would have it, the plane was in a hangar for repairs on December 7, 1941, allowing it to be one of the few planes to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor. Taken up for a training flight a couple of months later, the plane was unable to recover from a dive. Its young pilot, Lt. Kenneth Wayne Sprankle, was killed crashing the plane into a mountainside. The aircraft remained as a pile of crumbled scrap metal for 43 years on the island of Oahu until the aircraft was eventually recovered and restoration began in 1989 by Kent Lentz, who grew up immersed in Southern California’s aviation industry. “Space technician” was his official title, and he describes himself as a builder and machinist. Both he and his parents worked for North American Aviation. 

These planes, referred to as Tomahawks, were thought to be extinct. “Part of an original Tomahawk was better than none,” says Lentz. The grueling process of trying to build an air-worthy plane from a few scraps of metal began. The crumpled, crushed original material was straightened, then used as a template to make new, structurally sound pieces. Only 5 to 10% of the original plane went into the rebuilt version, so it was more of a remanufacture, as opposed to a restoration. Lentz is quoted in an interview for the Merced Sun-Star as saying, “There were a lot of skeptics, it did look impossible. I didn’t want to build a plane just to park it. I wanted to build it to fly again. I had built rockets that traveled to the moon. I knew I could rebuild a plane.”

Curtiss P-40B Tomahawk | Flickr/Donnie/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Curtiss P-40B Tomahawk | Flickr/Donnie/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Due to the condition of the P-40B, most everything was built from the ground up. Tools similar to ones used to construct the original planes in 1934 and 1935 were designed, then each piece of the plane was fabricated and assembled according to blueprints obtained from the Smithsonian. Two straight P40s were recovered from a crash site in Arizona, so some of their parts were incorporated during rebuilding. During the long restoration process, due to the complexity of having to make individual parts and the cost involved, the plane was worked on by many people, including Nightingale's AeroFab team. Restoration began in 1989 and was completed in 2007. After it was originally built, this Curtiss P-40B gained only nine months of service and 56 hours of flight time. Due to the dedication of everyone involved, the Tomahawk flew again 65 years after it crashed in Hawaii. It is the only known surviving aircraft from Pearl Harbor that is flying today. 

Flying Toward Equality

North American P-51D Mustang | U.S. Air Force
North American P-51D Mustang | U.S. Air Force

P-51 Mustangs hold a special place in Nightingale’s heart. These were the planes of his boyhood. His love of flying and restoration began with Mustangs. With the Tuskegee Airmen in their cockpits, the Red Tailed P-5s gained fame as escorts for WWII bombardiers. Restoration was recently completed on one such plane that was part of a local July 4th celebration and flew in honor of Robert Friend, a local Tuskegee airman who recently passed away. This particular Mustang, built in Inglewood, was stationed in Arizona as part of the Air Force fleet, then served with the Canadian Air Force. “The restoration was completed in Friend’s livery, so flying on the Fourth of July was especially meaningful to all who knew Bob,” says Nightingale. 

The Tuskegee Airmen not only paved the way for blacks to serve as pilots in WWII, but prompted the end of segregation in the military and blazed a trail toward equality in those Red-Tailed P-51 Mustangs.

Vision Becomes Reality

North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco | Courtesy of Air Classics Magazine and Michael O’Leary
North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco | Courtesy of Air Classics Magazine and Michael O’Leary

Desire and purpose have fueled the aircraft industry since the first planes took flight. Nowhere is that more evident than in Southern California, which is home to many aviation pioneers like the Lougheed brothers, Donald Douglas and Glenn Martin.

Like those aviation pioneers, two marines, W.H. Beckett and Lt. Col. K.P. Rice, built a prototype in their Santa Ana garage of what would become one of the most versatile planes ever. The original idea was to create a rugged, all-terrain airplane that could fly faster than the military helicopters of the 1960s, but slow enough to provide support for ground troops. Beckett and Rice designed the plane to have a 20-foot wingspan featuring a turboprop with a high boom tail to avoid backblast from weapons, that was also light enough to be able to float. It was such a success that North American Aviation bought the design, which was then sold to the military. The final product off the assembly line was the OV-10 Bronco; however, it had a 40-foot wingspan, was larger and heavier to accommodate munitions and ejection seats, and it would not be able to float. 

First used in Vietnam as a forward air command aircraft to protect ground troops, these Broncos were known to fly ‘low and slow,’ just what was needed over the rivers, muddy fields and coastal regions of Vietnam. The OV-10’s design sets it apart from all other aircraft because the double-booms connected by a tail-pane increased stability, while the wings set further back on the plane increased lift. It had superior endurance and was able to fly long missions lasting nearly six hours. The plane was far lighter than most, saving on fuel and enabling a safe takeoff and landing without a long runway. The 360-degree visibility from the cockpit was superior to any other plane being flown at the time. Ample room behind the cockpit also allowed for the transportation of men, equipment and enabled medical evacuations.

Agility, maneuverability, endurance and increased visibility when flying all worked together to provide the perfect reconnaissance plane. The OV-10 Broncos were supposed to have a three-year lifespan, but they surpassed all expectations, continuing to serve for 30-plus years. OV-10 Broncos serve in multiple capacities for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marines and SEALS and were used in action from Vietnam to the first Desert Storm. Today, they continue to serve in Southern California outside of the military as firefighting aircraft for Cal Fire. 

Nightingale’s team is in the process of restoring a Bronco from the Navy squadron known as the “Black Ponies.” “I am fortunate to have a few great pilots that flew this plane come into the shop, share stories with me and volunteer to assist in the restoration,” he says. “At air shows, I hear from veterans who remember these planes and the pilots as the one reason they are alive today. These planes are an important piece of history for us all.”

Nightingale recounts the history of the first Broncos, saying the Black Ponies were the go-to fighting squadron in Vietnam for close combat missions. Flying the OV-10A Bronco, the Light Attack Squadron 4, or VAL 4, was deployed in 1969 in Vietnam to the Mekong Delta. Flying their Broncos “down and dirty, low and slow” they saved more U.S. and allied troops with close-air support during this three-year period than all other naval squadrons combined.

North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco | Courtesy of Air Classics Magazine and Michael O’Leary
North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco | Courtesy of Air Classics Magazine and Michael O’Leary

Pointing the Way

It’s no wonder that pilots developed a unique relationship with these planes and that troops on the ground were heartened by the sight and sound of these aircraft. For many soldiers, the planes were a crucial part of survival and increased the chance of coming home alive. The Black Pony OV-10 Bronco, P-51 Red Tailed Mustang, Curtiss Hawk 75 that flew on both sides of WWII and the once-extinct Tomahawk Curtiss P-40B from Pearl Harbor are just some of the restored planes flying the skies, reminding us of the sacrifice so many brave men and women have made. Restored to their former glory, each aircraft that takes flight honors every life it has touched and is a history lesson in the sky, showing us our past and pointing the way to the future.

Top Image: P-51 Mustang in flight during an air show at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. | Wikimedia Commons/ U.S. Air Force

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