EVERETT — Even at his 100th birthday party, Jim Jackson tried to deflect attention from himself.
Jackson still volunteers at least two days a week at the Museum of Flight Restoration Center. Ask him, though, and there’s nothing remarkable about him staying busy transforming pieces of raw metal into airplane parts. He’s just part of the crew keeping the facility running.
“I’m nothing if I don’t have them to help me or tell me what to do,” he said.
Jackson was born May 31, 1915, in Seattle. He celebrated his actual birthday Sunday at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Everett. He was joined Wednesday by Museum of Flight staff, volunteers and family members at the restoration center’s Paine Field facility. His birthday cake showed a B-29 bomber, an airplane he had worked on during the World War II and many decades later as a restoration project for the Museum of Flight, where he’s now one of about 80 volunteers.
Slim and stooped, he walks briskly from one end of the restoration hangar to the other. He’s developed a reputation for working much younger guys under the table.
“Jim represents the very best of what we’d like to see in a volunteer,” said Dan Hagedorn, curator for the Seattle-based Museum of Flight. “He’s faithful. There’s not a job we ask him to do that he doesn’t accept — and he does it well. Above all else, he is utterly reliable.”
He got involved about eight years ago, at age 92 after his wife, Cynthia, died. They had been married nearly 50 years.
When he walked in the door, he recognized cowlings from a B-29 bomber.
“I made some smart remark about how heavy they used to be,” he recalled.
They asked him if he had worked on the B-29, the World War II-era bomber known as the Superfortress. As a matter of fact, he had. They put him to work.
Since then, he’s contributed to restoration work on just about every airplane that’s come through the facility. His tasks often involve re-creating an obscure replacement part that’s broken, corroded or missing.
Jackson grew up in Kirkland and the Phantom Lake area of Bellevue. He had one older and one younger brother, who are now deceased.
Family history might have helped steer him toward airplanes.
His father, Hervit Jackson, roomed with future Boeing Co. founder Bill Boeing Sr. and three other men at a boarding house in Hoquiam. Jackson’s father later worked as Boeing’s woodshop foreman in Seattle, at the Red Barn, the company’s original factory at Boeing Field. The barn is now part of the Museum of Flight campus.
Jim Jackson worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, hanging telephone lines and watching for fires.
Drafted in November 1942, he joined what was then known as the U.S. Army Air Forces. After basic training, they sent him to learn sheet metal skills at a school in southern California. After a 15-week course, he went to Oklahoma City.
What he saw at his next stop, in Kansas, would amaze him.
“I got there a week after the first B-29s,” he said. “None of us had ever seen a B-29.”
They’d heard rumors, but the real thing surpassed all expectations.
The B-29 Superfortress was a four-engine bomber that Boeing had developed in secret. It flew missions over Japan.
Blindness in his left eye — from being hit by a rock chip — had initially kept Jackson from being sent overseas. Military medics bent some rules, he said, to put his skills to use in the Pacific Theatre.
In Guam, he helped lead efforts to build a mess hall and flimsy plywood barracks at North Field, which later became Andersen Air Force Base.
There, Jackson would work on B-29s returning from bombing missions in Japan. Some arrived riddled from anti-aircraft fire but the crew unscathed. Other times, he said, “You could have a plane come back with one hole and a dead man.”
He was discharged from the service in January 1946 and soon went to work at Wilson Machine Works on Elliott Avenue West in Seattle.
“They asked me to help out for a few days and it ended up 28 years,” he said.
He retired in 1974.
“Haven’t worked since,” he said, laughing.
Jackson and Cynthia raised an adopted son, also named Jim Jackson, who was born to one of his wife’s daughters.
He has lived with his son’s family in Everett’s Lowell neighborhood for more than 20 years.
With his distinctively thin features, it’s easy to spot Jackson in pictures taken during his 50s, 30s and even 20s.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone who has changed so little from the pictures I’ve seen of him as a young man to who he is today,” said Tom Cathcart, the Museum of Flight’s director of aircraft collections.
Military papers listed Jackson as 6 feet, 5 inches tall and 150 pounds. He said he’s never weighed more than 160.
“I’ve always been the tallest, skinniest guy in the outfit,” he said.
His secret to longevity?
Nothing special, said his daughter-in-law, Sharon Jackson.
He keeps busy in his home machine shop. He tends a large vegetable garden and fruit trees.
“He eats almost everything, butter, cream,” she said.
Throughout his life, he’s hiked and skied. Well into his 90s, he out-hiked younger relatives. He loved to travel, with motorhome journeys and trips abroad.
He never smoked. Alcohol, however, is something he’s enjoyed from time to time.
“I like my good whiskey, but I never used any mix with it — always on the rocks,” Jim Jackson said.
Sharon’s four sons have learned mechanical skills and life lesson from their grandfather.
The second-oldest, 19-year-old Josh, used to accompany his grandfather for the B-29 restoration work. Last summer, his granddad taught him to weld. He expects the knowledge to come in handy, well into the future. He’s off soon for work in Alaska’s commercial salmon fishery.
“I hope that one day maybe I get to experience everything that he has,” he said. It’s an inspiration to me to want to go travel and to go to work.”