Idaho shop restores Corsair warplanes

JEROME, Idaho — Fewer than 40 of the 12,571 Corsair warplanes churned out in the U.S. during World War II and the Korean War are airworthy today. One sits in a hangar at Jerome County Airport, its nose up against a roll-up metal door, waiting for its chance to fly again.

This Corsair landed on the runway outside more than a decade ago. Built in 1945, the plane made it to Pearl Harbor just before fighting ended in the Pacific. It missed the Korean War, escaped the boneyards in Arizona and bounced around air museums in California, Canada and Washington before its current owner brought it to Jerome.

Soon, Airpower Unlimited owner John Lane plans to fly it himself back to a flight museum in Olympia.

Most warbirds brought in to Lane’s plane restoration business don’t take as long as the Corsair has. His team works on two to four projects all the time, with planes rotating out of the hangar as they’re completed. But restoration can’t be rushed.

“When we’re done, we’re done,” he said.

Patience, Lane said, is how he landed a warbird buff’s dream job. His father flew in WWII, and Lane always appreciated warplane history. He worked on racing engines early in his career and took his opportunities as they came. Eventually, warbird owners asked him to fly their planes.

After living in California and Arizona, Lane and his wife, Nancy, moved to the Jerome hangar in 1988. They lived in an apartment above the office area for 6?½ years before moving to a nearby house.

“We had a lot of fun here,” Lane said.

It seemed an almost constant stream of people would come to the door asking to look around.

“Sundays, it was nice to get to church to get away from here,” he said.

In the world of warbird restoration, word gets around. Lane never needed advertising or marketing to drum up business.

“You’re only as good as the last thing you pushed out the door,” he said.

On March 14, technician Dave Saks sat on the stationary section of one of the Corsair’s seagull-like wings. The silent hydraulic system rotated the wing up to point at the hangar’s skylights. Lane watched from the ground.

When the wing was folded, Lane studied a small red door they recently installed on the wing. The head of a screw jutted about a centimeter above the sheet metal. It would have to be adjusted.

Saks said plane restoration is like this: One problem is fixed, and a dozen more are found.

Saks’ father also fought in WWII, and Saks grew up gluing together models of the era’s planes.

Now in his 60s, Saks works on the real warbirds for three reasons: “To preserve history, to honor veterans and to satisfy my artistic soul,” he said.

Corsairs were built to have parts subbed out, Saks said. The plane was made in interchangeable chunks, convenient when the planes were churned out “like cookie batches,” he said. It’s unlikely that many of this plane’s parts are the same ones that the factory gave it.

Sixty years after production on this model ended, though, those spare parts are gone. The aluminum body corrodes, and the fabric frays. Planes simply aren’t made this way anymore. That’s where Saks comes in.

To build an original part for a Corsair, Saks has to study. If he has an original part in his hands, he can turn it over, size it up and plan to mimic it. If the part is missing, he pores over photographs, blueprints, anything he can find to clue him in to its shape and function.

He then has to build custom tools, molds of the right size for shaping the sheet metal. He makes a tool for each strip, then finally folds the thin metal around it.

On a large, complex machine, it’s meticulous work. When that machine then has to fly and support a human life, it’s no light responsibility.

Saks pours himself into each piece of the plane, and then, one day, it’s finished. It goes out the door and flies away.

“It’s like anything else you work intimately with,” Saks said. “It takes a piece of you with it when it goes.”

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