By John Wolcott SCBJ Freelance Writer
EVERETT — Where do aviation museums find the historic planes they display for thousands of fascinated visitors each year?
How are they transformed from bent, bullet-riddled scraps of metal and glass into prized aviation exhibits, slices of history, reminders of wars and dog-fighting victories, memories that make a veteran’s heart beat faster?
Now glistening clean, colorfully painted and authentically restored, these historic planes attract and amaze people of all generations, no longer bearing any trace of where they were found — at the bottom of Lake Washington, stuck in Alaskan mud flats or baking in the Arizona desert.
Hundreds of thousands of visitors to Seattle’s Museum of Flight each year marvel at the meticulously detailed and seemingly flight-ready appearance of the historic military and civilian aircraft on display — from a World War II Navy Corsair to a DC-3 airliner — without knowing whose hands and minds restored those treasures.
It’s people like Tom Cathcart, director of aircraft collections for the Museum of Flight, and his scores of skilled volunteers at the museum’s Restoration Center at Paine Field, who patiently and meticulously reassemble aviation relics, often working for years to prepare world-famous aircraft for display as icons of aviation history.
Cathcart also keeps track of all of the Museum of Flight aircraft in Seattle, leads preservation of the first Boeing 747 and a retired Concorde and track restoration of a P-51 in Idaho.
“Eventually we’ll have a covered area for all of our planes that are now parked outside, plus a new space gallery showing the United States’ involvement in space exploration, including the retired Space Shuttle trainer that people will be able to see up close,” he said.
More than 20 planes have been restored at Paine Field and sent to the Museum of Flight for display since the center opened in 1988.
“We have a dedicated team of volunteers with a variety of backgrounds and skills,” said Cathcart, who’s the only full-time employee at the center, assisted by part-time staffer Sheree Van Berg.
While volunteers do most of the work, project managers are sometimes hired to direct special restoration efforts, such as the de Havilland Comet 4C project headed by Jim Goodall. It’s one of the center’s biggest attractions. Ninety percent of the plane’s interior is completed, including the cockpit and the seating area of the world’s first jet airliner.
In contrast to seeing the gleaming, polished and dusted aircraft on display in Seattle, walking into the restoration center is like stepping into a mechanic’s garage, with parts, tools and sections of aircraft bodies wall to wall. Numerous projects are under way, each one in varying stages of multi-year resurrections.
“We just began work on a rare Lockheed YO-3A, a Vietnam-era stealth night reconnaissance aircraft that sat 20 years at the Skagit Regional Airport before the owner finally donated it to the museum,” Cathcart said. “It’s a unique spy plane that will soon be installed in the Museum of Flight’s Great Gallery.”
Prominent among the aircraft in the main restoration hangar at Paine Field is a twin-engine Chance-Vought F7U-3 Cutlass that was displayed in Bridgeport, Wash., from 1958 to 1992.
Close by, a Grumman F4F takes shape as volunteers piece together parts for the landing gear and the plane’s folding wings. It flew Navy combat missions in the battle for Okinawa and will join other WW II warbirds at the Museum of Flight’s Personal Courage wing.
Elsewhere is a Boeing 247D, a 10-passenger plane that launched the airline industry. It was restored to flyable condition after a 13-year effort by volunteers. This is the only airworthy 247D of four survivors.
Outside the hangars, helicopters and a Boeing 727 jet await attention.
Even though museum’s restoration center has been tucked away at Paine Field for years, its quiet times are over. In recent years the busy workshop has added signage and walkways for visitors that allow tours without interrupting workers’ restoration efforts. An extensive reception center is filled with books, models and aviation memorabilia.
“More than 5,000 visitors go through the restoration center each year,” Cathcart said.
Tour the center
The Museum of Flight’s Paine Field Restoration Center is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday from June through August and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday from September through May. Donations of at least $5 per person are suggested. For more information, go to www.museumofflight.org/collections/aircraft-restoration or call 425-745-5150.