Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Dream of making World War II era plane fly in Oklahoma unites aviation fans... Project that was started in 1999 is nearing completion

James Dudnelly attaches a small hose on the engine. engine. On ground are his son, James Dudnelly Jr. and Bill Hayes, far left. The elder Dudnelly is the group leader. Hayes is director of operations. The younger Dudnelly paints parts for the plane. 

Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman Jim Beckel - THE OKLAHOMAN

GUTHRIE — When the A-26 Invader light bomber now sitting in a hangar at a Guthrie airport finally takes to the sky it won't exactly be a miracle, but it will be a testament to the value of people working together for a common goal. 

 The World War II era A-26 was acquired by the Sierra Hotel Group of the Commemorative Air Force in Arkansas in 1999. It was brought to Wiley Post for a few years before being moved to the Guthrie airport.

The vintage aircraft has become a magnet of talent and time. The restoration group, made up of about 48 members, has logged 28,500 hours working on the plane that was essentially rebuilt from scratch.

The group has spent nearly $500,000. Some of the money comes from contributions and grants. But the labor is all theirs. And there is still a lot of work to be done. The group hopes to have the plane flying within 18 months to two years.

So what keeps them coming back every Saturday?

“We ask ourselves that a lot,” retired Air Force Col. Rick Hudlow said. “It's a museum piece on its own. It has a history. This airplane in particular has an interesting story. We looked at it as a heckuva challenge, and we wanted to fly it.”

Hudlow, 87, flew during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. At one point he flew with actor Jimmy Stewart during Stewart's time as a reservist after World War II.

“Having him on base was a lot of fun, particularly on Friday afternoon at happy hour,” Hudlow said. “He knew every dirty RAF and Air Force song ever written, and he would play the piano with two fingers and sing.”

Tom Parsons, 70, spent his career at Tinker Air Force Base as a structural repair mechanic before retiring last year. Most Saturdays he's at the hangar in Guthrie by 7:30 a.m. Like the rest of the group, he'll work for 12 hours, breaking only for lunch and the occasional story.

“It's a whole lot of fun,” Parsons said. “I'm dead tired when I get home, but when I was working at Tinker I was more exhausted mentally because, believe it or not, some government jobs are stressful. I come here on Saturday morning and it feels like 15 minutes go by and it's time to go home.”

When Parsons talks about seeing the plane fly his eyes light up.

“When you hear those engines fire up it's like magic,” he said. “There's no other sound like it in the world.”

The plane that inspired their work and passion has a unique history. It was made in 1945 by Douglas Aircraft in Tulsa. Later it was deployed in Korea and again in Vietnam when it was leased to the French military during their involvement in what would become the Vietnam War.

When it was no longer in use by the military it became a corporate plane, ferrying executives for several companies over the years. It was eventually acquired by a group in Arkansas that flew it for several years, apparently unaware of its structural problems.

“It was badly damaged,” Hudlow said. “The tail was about to come off and one of the wings was broken and they apparently didn't know that. It could have come off in flight. They're lucky they all didn't get themselves killed.”

Hudlow used contacts at Boeing to have critical pieces engineered and manufactured. Though the company no longer made those types of parts or used that metal, the engineers he talked with wanted to see the plane fly.

“About a year later a big box came, and it had the parts we needed,” Hudlow said.

There were seemingly endless problems beyond a broken wing. The plane's electrical system was a mess. And what's worse, there were no schematics.

Bill Hayward, 81, who spent 28 years as a project leader for the Federal Aviation Administration, started from scratch and drew the schematic necessary to overhaul the system. He also designed a new instrument panel.

Like the others, he has a great passion for aviation. He makes the trip up from his Dallas-area home most Saturdays.

“I started flying when I was 16, and I spent nine years in the Air Force,” Hayward said. “After I got out of the Air Force I wanted to do something else in aviation. The profession has a lot of romance to it when you get right down to it.”

Group leader Jim Dudnelly, 57, has spent his career working in aviation, but his involvement in the project is a way to honor his father.

“My dad was a World War II veteran, and I've always been interested in that period,” he said. “We're just trying to keep those memories alive as a way to honor the men and women who made those sacrifices.”

And when the plane does fly, it will be the culmination of many Saturdays spent at an airport hangar in Guthrie.

“When you decide you're going to do something that everyone says is impossible and you're hardheaded enough to do it anyway there's a lot of satisfaction in that,” Hudlow said.

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