Lovers of aviation spend their golden years restoring vintage planes

EVERETT — Pete Graven got hooked on aviation as a young boy, listening to stories from his uncle, a WWI fighter pilot.

Jim Jackson was among the first mechanics to work on the B-29 bomber during WWII.

Norm Constan spent nearly four decades with the Boeing Co., delivering airplanes.

Now, in their golden years, these volunteers spend a day or two a week at Paine Field, fixing up vintage aircraft at the Museum of Flight Restoration Center. Many are well into their 80s. The oldest is 99.

“The people here have just as many interesting stories as the aircraft they’ve worked on,” said Tom Cathcart, the museum’s director of aircraft collections. “It’s just as much about the guys out here working as the aircraft the museum ends up putting on display. The aircraft is getting a second life, but some of these guys are, too.”

The restoration center opened at Paine Field about 30 years ago. In 1988, the center moved into the two hangars it now occupies near Airport Road. These days, it’s one of several historic aircraft attractions at the Snohomish County Airport, which also hosts the Future of Flight, the Flying Heritage Collection and the Historic Flight Foundation.

The restoration center is no dark, dingy workshop. It’s open to the public most days of the week. Adult admission costs $5.

Walk inside, and you’ll see about two-dozen aircraft. There are immaculate specimens — and others that look like they barely escaped the scrap heap.

The collection includes a restored F2G-1 Super Corsair, a fighter built by Goodyear Aircraft Corp., near the end of WWII. There’s also a nearly display-ready Chance Vought XF8U-1 Crusader, the first-ever example of a legendary jet that hit Mach 1 — breaking the sound barrier — during its initial flight in 1955. The Crusader went on to enjoy remarkable longevity, with the last one retired from service in 2000 by the French Navy. Elsewhere, you can spy jumbles of raw machinery: radial and V12 engines alongside some of the jet propulsion systems that replaced them.

A Lockheed Jetstar from 1957 still conjures up the magic of the early jet age, even without paint or much of an interior. A silver, banana-shaped U.S. Air Force helicopter built in 1951 by Piasecki Aircraft Corp. sits out back like a classic car on blocks.

Need a tour guide? There’s bound to be somebody nearby who didn’t merely study history, but lived it.

“The tourists say, ‘It’s great to come in and talk to you guys,’” said Pete Graven, 86, of Bellevue, a retired mechanical engineer who spent his career selling heavy equipment for General Electric.

Graven has been volunteering 24 years — “without pay” — he adds. He got started as a docent at the Museum of Flight’s main facility in Seattle, then found his way north to the restoration center.

Graven said he acquired his love of aviation as a boy in Chicago. His “whiskey-drinking uncle” would tell him stories of flying fighter planes during WWI and rubbing shoulders with some of the most famous aces of the day.

Graven got his pilot license in 1961, but it was a hobby, not a profession. These days, he leads a small crew fixing up a Pratt-Read PR-G1 Glider, a light, engineless aircraft that seats two.

“I’ve been the lead on this one, because I’m the only glider pilot in the bunch,” he said.

The same type of plane set an altitude record in 1952, soaring to 44,255 feet. The record stood until 2006, when two men flew a glider dubbed the “Perlan” — Icelandic for “pearl” — to 50,727 feet.

The 2006 glider is on display with the Museum of Flight in Seattle. If things work out, the Pratt-Read glider will join it.

First, there’s some work to do.

More than seven years into the restoration, Graven’s team has finished reverse-engineering the intricate woodworking of one of the glider’s wings.

“There are 88 ribs in there and every one is different,” Graven said.

On a Wednesday last month, he and two other volunteers brushed poly-fiber fabric over the wooden wing structure. A chemical smell emanated from the table where they mix the compounds.

“We call it my cocktail lounge,” quipped Norm Constan, a 78-year-old retiree from Seattle.

Constan worked 39 years for Boeing, mostly delivering airplanes.

“I started on the B-52 — I’m an old guy,” he said.

A retired middle- and high-school teacher rounded out the team that day.

“I’ve always been a model-airplane nut and this seemed like the ultimate model-airplane project,” said John Grove, 81, of Mercer Island.

They hope to finish the glider next year.

The restoration center accepts volunteers age 18 and above, subject to a background check.

“We’re a little low right now,” said Sheree Van Berg, the center’s aircraft maintenance technician. “We usually have between 80 and 100. We have about 80 right now.”

The largest group of volunteers, about 35, has been working to restore an example of the world’s first commercial jetliner, a DH 106 Comet by Britain’s de Havilland Aircraft Co.

“It’s never an individual effort,” Cathcart said. “It’s always a team effort.”

Nineteen years and going, the Comet is also the longest-running project at the center.

The longest-serving volunteer presides over a workshop stocked with vacuum-tube components and other high-tech antiques. At 93, Joe Polocz has outlived most everyone from the time when he started volunteering in 1986.

Polocz, a widower, typically shows up three days a week, four if they ask him. He enjoys working with the radio tuned to classical music.

“It gives me a reason to get up in the morning and to exist,” he said. “It’s a good hangout for me. It’s more or less a lifesaver. It keeps me going.”

The nonagenarian is renowned for his skill at bending stock sheets of metal into missing airplane parts. His electronics know-how also is in high demand. He’s helped rescue four WWII-era flight simulators from oblivion.

Born in Hungary, Polocz grew up around his father’s blacksmith shop, where he learned the trade. During the Second World War, he served in the Hungarian Air Force as a mechanic. Later, he fled the threat of “Uncle Joe” — Joseph Stalin — and landed in America. He soon found work in Camden, New Jersey, with RCA, on “whatever technology was going on at the time.”

After retirement, Polocz and his wife moved west to be closer to their daughter. He now lives in south Everett.

“That guy can make anything out of wrought iron and he can shape sheet metal like you wouldn’t believe,” Cathcart said.

Polocz isn’t the senior volunteer.

That distinction belongs to 99-year-old Jim Jackson of Everett.

Jackson was among the first mechanics on the B-29 bomber, which saw heavy use in the Pacific theater during WWII.

“We were the first guys to do any work on them,” he said. “No manuals. No instructions.”

Though his tall, thin frame has become less steady with age, Jackson’s skill for making parts continues to inspire reverence.

“He can work most younger guys under the table,” Carthcart said.

Jackson deflects the attention.

“I’m just one of the guys,” he said. “We all work together. I’m nothing special.”

The Museum of Flight Restoration Center

Open for tours most days of the week.

Address: 2909 100th St. SW, Everett, WA 98204

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday (June through August); Tuesday through Thursday, Saturday (September through May)

Price: Adults (18 and up): $5; Youths (5-17): $3; Children (4 and under): Free

More info: www.museumofflight.org/restoration; 425-745-5150.

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