I’ve always wanted to help restore and fly (as a pilot) a ‘warbird.’ According to the dictionary, a warbird is a “vintage military aircraft.” To that definition, I would add the word ‘flyable’ and make it ‘flyable vintage aircraft.’

Why the difference? Simple. If they’re not flyable, an airplane is a museum piece. Pretty to look at, interesting to study and wonder what it would like to fly, but a historic, static piece of machinery.

Age, corrosion, stress, lack of parts, knowledge how they were built/maintained, accidents, etc. all add up and put airplanes in museums. Restored, but not flyable. Many museums have airplanes restored to flyable condition, test flown and then put back on display because it is the only one left of its kind which puts them in a separate category, flyable but not flown.

Airplanes are designed to be flown. There are many organizations committed to keeping vintage military airplanes in the air such as The Planes of Fame Museum; Confederate now the Commemorative Air Force; Palm Springs Air Museum; the Cavanaugh Flight Museum to name a few. There are others as well as private owners scattered around the U.S. and the rest of the world who fly their warbirds regularly and bring them to airshows or offer rides.

There are museums (and businesses) that build, sell and fly replicas of WW1 airplanes using the same techniques and materials employed way back then. Because of their lack of speed, flying them long distances is impractical because of the distance, e.g. cruising at ninety knots and stopping for fuel every two hours turns a 500 mile trip into a long tiring day.

As a Naval Aviator who grew up reading about and hearing stories about flying WW1, WW2 and Korean era airplanes, I’ve always had an interest in warbirds. If I could afford it, I’d already own one. The top five on my dream list are an F-4U Corsair; a Grumman F-4F Wildcat, a Spitfire Mk. IX, a P-38 Lightning and a P-47 Thunderbolt.

I love these machines and revere the men who flew them. They were pioneers who made my aviation career possible.

Recently, I was offered the opportunity to volunteer to help finish the restoration of a PT-17 built in 1940. It’s a fabric-covered biplane used by the U.S. Army Air Corps and Navy as a primary trainer. Often dubbed the “Yellow Peril,” not because it was dangerous to fly, but if one washed out, you were often sent to be a bombardier or a navigator, or worse, to the infantry or armor. Just so you know, even during WW2, the washout rate in the U.S. Army Air Corps was 30%.

The Cavanaugh is one of those museums still flying warbirds and the PT-17 was acquired about two years ago from a maintenance school. Since then, it has been completely rebuilt, recovered, painted in U.S. Army Air Corps colors for 1941 and is now being re-assembled for its first flight which is still months away. A team – yours truly is now one – of about a dozen show up twice a week to work for four hours on the PT-17.

The work is slow and some days, it seems we get little accomplished, but then there are other times when you walk away and think wow, this was really cool. We got something done and soon this airplane will fly!

Marc Liebman

October 2017