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The Corsair Will Fly Again

"It's important that we memorialize and we keep those things that remind us - we didn't get this country for free, there's a price to be paid... these things we have to remember."  WWII Pilot and the 69th U.S. Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentson

We in aviation maintenance share a common bond. This bond builds comaraderie amongst us all: military, airline, Warbird and corporate technicians alike. Aviation has hooked us. At some point, there was a spark that triggered our emotions and opened our eyes to the possibilities in aviation.

For most of us, that spark is and will always be there. Perhaps for some, it has dimmed through the daily struggles to earn a living, raise a family and go about one's life. The goal of Bootstrap Aircraft is to light a spark in today's children, and to help to re-light it for all of yesterday's children. We are doing this by restoring an F4U Corsair back to flying condition.

My first memories of aviation are typical; I was one of those young boys hanging on airport fences. Naturally, since I was hanging out at airports, I had to pick my favorite aircraft. The choice was easy. At the Bridgeport Airport in Stratford, Conn., I set eyes on one of the most famous World War II aircraft, the F4U Corsair. It was built literally across the street from the airport by United Aircraft Corp.'s Vought-Sikorsky factory - the present day United Technologies Corp.

This aircraft drew me in and captured my imagination. With its distinctive gull wings, huge 13-foot diameter Hamilton Standard propeller, and massive Pratt & Whitney R2800 Double Wasp engine, it was an impressive sight.

The Corsair is the only World War II U.S. fighter with an engine, propeller and airframe all supplied by one corporation (United Aircraft) and the only pre-World War II U.S. fighter to stay in production after the war. It was designed to have the smallest possible airframe mated to the largest available engine. The distinctive gull wings, with the gear at the bottom of the gull section of the wing, allow the Corsair to have the short, strong gear needed for carrier landings and still let the massive propeller clear the ground. The side benefits include reduced drag at the mating point of the wing to the fuselage, lower overhead clearance when the wings are folded (since they hinge at the lowest point of the wing), and better visibility from the cockpit for the pilot.

The Corsair started out as a fighter aircraft and was adapted over the years to fulfill many other roles, such as ground attack, bombing and close-in ground support. Flown by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, the Royal Air Force, the Royal New Zealand Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force, to name a few, the Corsair was featured in a 1970s television series loosely based on Gregory "Pappy" Boyington's Black Sheep of VMF-214.

It just could not get any more appealing to an 11-year-old boy. The fantasy of flying this one aircraft was born immediately, and it led directly to my career in aviation. Since I knew I couldn't buy, borrow or rent a Corsair, the only other possibility left was to build one.

Restoring a Corsair involves an enormous amount of funding, training to fly World War II aircraft, earning a Mechanic's Certificate and Inspection Authorization, and finding the right aircraft. And that is just the beginning.

In keeping with the 1940s theme, I borrowed the old expression of "picking yourself up by your own bootstraps" and established Bootstrap Aircraft in late 1990. Over the years, many individuals and companies have contributed to the effort to restore this F4U Corsair. All positions at Bootstrap are filled with volunteer help.

We began by purchasing a nearly destroyed aircraft as a "project." This project is an F4U-4 model, produced in 1945. It saw service with VF-42, The Green Pawns, aboard the USS Saipan. Our research indicates Alan Shepard, the first American in space, may have flown it.

In 1957 the U.S. Navy sold this plane as surplus for $917. In today's dollars, that is still only $10,000! In civilian ownership, the famous Bob Bean of Arizona and the son of Pancho Barnes each in turn owned this aircraft. N5222V. Pancho was the well-known aviation pioneer, barnstormer and owner of the Mojave Desert Inn. "The Happy Bottom Riding Club," made famous in the movie The Right Stuff.

The Corsair suffered an accident in 1991 and was almost completely destroyed. Shortly afterward, it became the focus for Bootstrap Aircraft.

The single most critical aspect of the entire restoration project is the strict adherence to the practices and procedures approved for aircraft maintenance. We had to ensure we were receiving the latest information and training to qualify us to undertake a project of this scope. We needed a clearinghouse to locate the seminars, publications, regulatory information, the latest technology, and sources for products and services. We filled all of these needs through our membership in PAMA.

PAMA publications and the web site convey the latest information on rules, regulations and policy changes. This allows us to maintain the highest standards possible. In addition, PAMA's Annual Symposium and Trade Show gives us the opportunity to make contacts, explore new processes and identify potential suppliers. We can accomplish the majority of our research, attend seminars, renew our IA ratings, and make contact with vendors and potential volunteers on the AS3 trade show floor.

As technicians, it is our responsibility to research and determine the best products, services and practices available for our needs. Maintaining currency in the area of product and services availability is critical.

Researching the various archives for reference material is a process that demands patience. We have invested more than five years of research uncovering the history of this aircraft, locating all of the original factory blueprints, maintenance manuals, parts manuals and countless thousands of reference photographs.

Research isn't easy, yet it pales in comparison to locating usuable parts. We have purchased never-been-used parts found in horse barns, salvage yards, foreign countries and from parts dealers. We have purchased wing tip parts that were stored in a chicken coop in Oregon and located a canopy that had been in a barn for nearly 50 years. A friend had Corsair drop tanks in his hangar for nearly two decades, and Bootstrap Aircraft purchased those this year. Our tailhook has also been used as a wall decoration in Carson City, Nev. We were given a hydraulic actuator from an individual who once worked for Chance Vought. He said he "borrowed" it from Vought to make his automobile convertible top hydraulically operated, but he never got around to it.

We purchased the engine from a friend in the aircraft restoration business. This engine, originally supplied to Vought by Pratt & Whitney, was shipped from the Pratt factory in East Hartford on May 17, 1945. It was removed in 1957 and stored. The engine has only 917 hours on it. We are disassembling, cleaning, painting and reassembling the engine to document the technology of the radial engine, test new cleaning processes and products, and provide an engine for the build up of our entire powerplant assembly, known as a QEC (Quick Engine Change). When we are closer to needing the engine to fly, it will be overhauled by a certified facility.

All of our parts are being tested - using approved methods - and are being certified by the proper facilities. We are applying the guidance offered by the FAA through the Suspected Unapproved Parts Program (a program we learned more about because of PAMA). Parts that cannot be purchased must be fabricated. With the original drawings and specifications, Bootstrap Aircraft is having parts made by certified facilities. Having an original but damaged part in addition to the specifications aids us immeasurably in this effort. One such project underway is the fabrication of a new main spar. We have an original but corroded spar to use as a pattern, along with reference drawings, photographs and manuals.

Authenticity is a major priority, but we are open to change. Utilizing today's technology is essential to achieving the highest state of preservation and safety while still adhering to strict guidelines for originality. For instance, the Corsair was painted in 1945 with lacquer paint. The durability of lacquer is far below that of enamel paint, and even further below that of a polyurethane. We are working with Poly-Fiber Aircraft Coatings to match the color and degree of gloss to the original federal specifications and yet use their top of the line polyurethane paint. Jon Goldenbaum of Poly-Fiber is an expert in the aircraft coating and fabric industry, and he has stepped forward to provide the best aircraft protection while still maintaining the Corsair's historical accuracy.

Our concerns with parts cleaning were threefold: What can we use that will not cause any substrate damage to the parts being cleaned, steel, aluminum or magnesium? Can we find a material that does not require the part to be degreased or otherwise pre-cleaned? Finally, what is the most environmentally friendly method available today? These questions led us directly to Arm & Hammer's ARMEX Cleaning and Coating Removal System. This baking soda-based system reduced our hazardous disposal costs and saved countless man-hours by reducing media blasting to a one-step system. In addition, we are able to control the volume of media flow and blasting pressure precisely, thus conserving the media and protecting the material being cleaned. Arm & Hammer's joint venture with Safety-Kleen, Armakleen, introduced us to the latest in acqueous cleaning solutions and equipment. These aviation-approved solutions replace solvent cleaners and reduce hazardous disposal costs and are almost completely recyclable. These are just several of the many ways we have investigated and found ways to do something better and smarter.

A lot of folks with many decades of experience in maintaining and operating "round" motors swear by their own methods of maintenance and even their choice of oil. Again, by exploring newly available products, we learned of another innovation. Phillips 66 makes the only multi-viscosity oil for radial engines. Had this oil been available in 1945, it certainly would have been used.

Considerations must be made for safety of flight, including avionics and radios compatible with today's operating environment. Bootstrap Aircraft plans to achieve this safety by building the Corsair's panel with modern avionics. Authenticity will be maintained by installing a temporary original panel with instrument faces over the operational panel for displays and photos.

The strict adherence to FAA regulations, the use of only approved parts, and the conscientious attention to detail would be diminished if there were not proper documentation. Through PAMA, I learned of AirLog Imaging's digital record keeping system. Our logbooks go back to 1945 and need some work! We are using AirLog to have every receipt, yellow tag, inspection report, statement of conformity, and logbook entry digitally entered in a system that organizes all of the records on CDs.

We are developing scholarships and aviation curricula to educate, expose and recruit people into aviation. Much of our support comes from others who want to address the shortage of qualified aviation technicians. This project has appeal to every segment of aviation. The Corsair is the hardware, the "attention getter." From there we can use it to send our messages. For example, Bootstrap is working with the U.S Navy and Marine Corps to aid recruiting. There are more youth out there who love aviation!

Of the 12,571 Corsairs built, only about a dozen are flyable. We can, and must allow this aircraft to be accessible to the next generation. Let's get it closer than the one on the pole; let's bring it back into the hangar, and then into the air. Along the way, we will take some young people into the future of aviation, by bringing them to aviation through its past. Bootstrap Aircraft is convinced that by restoring an aircraft like the Corsair, people will better understand history and those who made it. When the Corsair roars to life and takes off, it will not merely be just an old airplane; it will be a memorial to the thousands of people who worked and fought to preserve our way of life.

 


Craig M. McBurney is an A&P / IA and a commercial pilot type rated in several aircraft. He founded Bootstrap Aircraft in 1990. For more information or to make a tax-deductible donation, visit www.bootstrapaircraft.com. Companies interested in contributing to the restoration of the Corsair by becoming sponsors and donors can contact Bootstrap Aircraft at craig@bootstrapaircraft.com.

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Last modified: September 18, 2012

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