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Famed WWII Corsair Rising From Salvaged Parts and Plans

by: Oshrat Carmiel - Courant Staff Writer

Reprint from the Hartford Courant Company, January 27, 2002. www.ctnow.com

In a modest East Hartford garage, Craig McBurney is piecing together a lifelong fantasy with nuts and bolts and sheets of aluminum.

In the absence of sunlight, he tinkers and tweaks, guided by a set of aging blueprints, old photos and an unassailable patience.

If all goes according to plan, his efforts will produce a F4U Corsair - a fast-flying, fear-inspiring, World War II fighter plane that traces its roots to Connecticut.

Very few of them exist, experts say. Even fewer are flyable. The ones that are could sell for millions.

So what's a former Air Force officer to do if he longs to fly one, but can't muster the fortune?

Build one himself, naturally.

"We're recreating the airplane basically from the ground up," he said, referring to himself and Steve Ahern, a childhood buddy from East Haven. They have set aside their day jobs to restore a bit of history.

McBurney, 38, has traveled across the country in search of Corsair parts. He has recovered wing tips in an Oregon chicken coop, a cockpit canopy in a horse barn in Idaho and a tail hook being used as a wall decoration in Carson City, Nev. Over the last 10 years he has amassed "six warehouses full" of parts, all of which he will eventually use - or replicate - to build his plane.

As a guide, he is relying on old engineering manuals, muddled archived blueprints and any photos he can lay his hands on - trying in the 21st century to unearth the engineering formula of a plane that first rolled off an assembly line in 1938.

"It's detective work," he said. "It's unbelievable detective work."

About 12,500 Corsairs were built between 1938 and 1945 - the longest continuous production of any World War II-era aircraft, said Hill Goodspeed, museum historian at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla. Launched from U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, the Corsairs are credited with shooting down close to 2,000 Japanese aircraft, Goodspeed said. That earned them the admiration of U.S. armed forces and inspired fear among Japanese fighters, who labgeled the Corsair "Whistling Death."

Famous throughout the world, the Corsair was developed largely in Connecticut: It was built by Stratford-based United Aircraft Corp., equipped with an engine from East Hartford-based Pratt & Whitney and a propeller from the formerly East Hartford-based Hamilton Standard.

Though they were still used during the Korean War, the Corsairs, like all World War II-era planes, became outdated. Their surplus was sold or destroyed.

"They pushed them off boats, ran them over with bulldozers, all kinds of nasty things," said David Schober, government affairs manager for the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association in Washington, D.C.

Those that sold, sold cheap. Often, the buyers were more interested in the airplane parts than in preserving the airplane as whole.

"Unless you're really history-minded, it is really just an old plane for people," Goodspeed said. "To most people, you just destroy it for scrap metal."

Today, only about 90 Corsairs remain, scattered throughout the world, Goodspeed said. Only about a dozen are flyable, McBurney estimates.

One of the intact, but non-flyable Corsairs sits on a pylon at Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford, where McBurney would ride past on his bike as a child. From behind the chain-link fence, McBurney would stare longingly at the curious WWII relic, with its signature U-shaped wings and 13-foot nose propeller.

Other intact planes were used in the short-run NBC series "Baa Baa Black Sheep" in the late 1970s - a show that fared poorly in ratings but is responsible for igniting an interest in aviation among young men. McBurney was one of them. He joined the Air Force after high school so he could learn to fly. After nine years of service, he began flying and restoring World War II planes professionally for several museums and flying them in air shows across the country. But he never got a chance to fly a Corsair.

"It became pretty obvious that museums with Corsairs don't just give you the keys and say, 'Hey, take it around the patch,' " he said. "I decided if I couldn't buy a Corsair, I would build one."

His time traveling in air shows helped him out. McBurney, who wears a Corsair charm on his gold necklace and has a picture of a Corsair on every shirt he wears, was a natural target of conversation for those who share his passion.

Folks who approached him offered everything from advice to old Corsair generators to hydraulic cylinders. He amassed acres of parts over the years, storing them in six Florida warehouses. Two years ago, after buying the wreckage of a late-model Corsair, he decided to devote his full time to a project that experts say may be daunting.

"Any restoration project is a colossal undertaking," said Dik Daso, curator of modern military aircraft at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. "It costs a lot of money. It takes a lot of time."

McBurney's new company, Bootstrap Aircraft is banking that the restored Corsair could become a darling of air shows, a staple at promotional events, a learning tool for school children and most importantly, a living testament to Connecticut's aviation history.

 

SIX WAREHOUSES full of Corsair parts are the ingredients Steve Ahern, left, and Craig McBurney are using to build a flying World War II F4U-4 Corsair in East Hartford. This is the forward section of a Pratt and Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engine, which will power the rebuilt aircraft.

Photo by Tony Bacewicz / The Hartford Courant

 

 

The project is expected to be costly. McBurney has gone looking for support from economic development groups, educational foundations, historical societies and many of the Corsair's original sponsors. He has secured some backing from Arm & Hammer, which has lent him a baking soda cleaning system for the engine; Phillips Petroleum Co., which donated a 55-gallon barrel of rust-preventing engine oil; and Poly-Fiber Aircraft Coating, which has pledged $15,000 worth of paint and fabric.

After months of 13-hour sessions, McBurney and Ahern, 39, a high school teacher, have finally finished cleaning every crevice of the radial engine that will power the future Corsair. Once they reattach the nuts, bolts, spacers and tubes, they will tackle the wing spar - salvaging what they can.

The work can be numbing. The money is always scarce.

But in his small workshop, McBurney spouts enough energy to fuel the Corsair himself.

"I was 11 years old, watching airplanes fly over my house," he shrugs as he stands near a table scattered with engine pieces. "I always dreamed I would fly them."

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