Warbird takes wing

Midwest Aero Restorations Ltd. staff, left to right, Mike Vadeboncoeur, Gary Day, Doug Marlatt and Richard Gilbert stand by Happy Jack’s Go Buggy — a World War II P-51 Mustang they restored.

When a warplane rolled out of the factory in the 1940s, it was ready for action — not a beauty show. The paints didn’t match, the aluminum was dull and there were hand-written notes in greasepaint.

A restored plane should look exactly like that, too — down to the little details that most people don’t even see.

That’s the theory behind the work at Midwest Aero Restorations, Ltd., located at the Vermilion Regional Airport.

In fact, the crew at Midwest did such a good job restoring a P-51 Mustang that the warbird took top honors at the recent EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2008 in Wisconsin.

The plane, called “Happy Jack’s Go Buggy,” took grand champion in the World War II category.

“You can just imagine … in 1943, when that thing was rolling out of the factory and rushed to Europe,” said Dale Salonen, a commissioner on the airport authority.

“They went to extraordinary efforts to make it amazingly authentic,” he said, referring to the crew at Midwest.

Mike Vadeboncoeur, owner of Midwest Aero, was concerned that people at the air show wouldn’t be impressed with the plane’s restored state.

But, he said, people were making nice comments and saying, “Wow, that’s probably how it looked in the war.”

Also, he added, “Many said we raised the bar as far as standards of restoration. I’m not sure what we can do to make them (planes) more authentic now.”

COMPETITION TOUGH

Out of the approximately 400 warplanes that attended the show sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association — the largest in the world — between 40 and 50 were actually judged.

“This was one of the toughest shows we’ve been to,” Vadeboncoeur said, “and we’re grateful to pull off the victory.”

Mechanic Richard Gilbert agreed, saying, “We were quite pleased. We were hoping for it.”

Gilbert had a hand in the assembly, rigging work, parts restoration and other duties involved in restoring the Mustang to its former glory.

Midwest Aero, in business since 1993, has four full-time mechanics, all licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration. The company has restored six planes and part of another — all vintage WWII planes.

P-51 Mustangs were used in World War II through the Korean War and stateside in the National Guard through the 1950s. They have become a popular collectible. Out of about 15,000 P-51s built, only about 140 are left that are flyable.

The recent grand champion award was the second for the company. Three other restored Mustangs won prizes at past Oshkosh shows: a grand champion for Cripes A’Mighty in 2002, and reserve champions for Daddy’s Girl in 2004 and Red Dog in 2006.

Midwest Aero also has won seven Golden Wrench awards, which go to companies that worked on planes that were either grand champions or reserve grand champions.

The plane later called Happy Jack’s Go Buggy was built in 1944. It was shipped to the Italian theater, Vadeboncoeur said, but there’s no record of what it did there.

The crew did find a bullet during restoration, but it’s unknown if that shot happened during its European or Guatemalan service. After the war, the plane was used by the Guatemalan Air Force until 1972.

IN ROUGH SHAPE

When the plane came to Midwest Aero, it had been sitting in storage for many years, and had had a couple of different owners. No restoration work had been done on it, so it was an amazingly complete combat-stock airplane.

Its current owner is Fighter Escort LLC of San Antonio, Texas.

The aircraft was trucked in to Danville from Texas. It had a lot of corrosion, bird nests and other issues; also, the Guatemalan camouflage coloring was still intact. It hadn’t been flown since the 1970s.

The restoration represents the wartime mount of Maj. Jack Ilfrey, who served with the 20th Fighter Group at Kingscliffe, England, in 1944. Ilfrey didn’t actually fly this particular plane, but it’s exactly like one he did fly — down to all the little details and markings.

Ilfrey, who lived in Texas, died in 2004, and didn’t have a chance to see the restored beauty.

When the plane arrived in Danville, the crew at Midwest spent hours researching archives, books, records and old photos to get every detail as correct as possible.

Some of today’s warbirds tend to be polished and overly-restored, not very accurate to the original details.

But not those handled by Midwest Aero.

For example, the aluminum on the outside isn’t highly polished; it’s dull, like it would have been during wartime.

The lacquer covering the markings on the exterior is a dull yellow, like it would have been after hours in the sun.

The fuel tanks back then were made of compressed paper. There are only three paper tanks left, and Vadeboncoeur knows a man who owns one of them. He borrowed the tank and made a fiberglass mold from it, so the tanks on the plane look like they’re made of paper.

DOWN TO DETAILS

The crew applied all the exterior markings from Ilfrey’s Go Buggy: top hats and canes, representing all the escort missions into Germany; brooms, standing for fighter sweeps; ships with umbrellas, meaning the plane provided high-cover missions; bombs, for the bombing missions; and trains, representing all the strafing missions during which trains were destroyed.

A stencil had been used to apply the markings to denote the different missions, and the number of those missions.

The crew also painted on the metal manufacturer’s water marks and North American Aviation’s inspection stamps, quality control notations and other hand-written notes and instructions.

Another mark of authenticity is that the Midwest crew applied green paint on the top of the plane, but it has fuzzy edges, not straight paint lines. That green paint would have been applied in the war field, he said, and so it wouldn’t be an exact paint job.

Overall, the paint job on the Mustang looks like it would have during the war.

Salonen noted that even the painting flaws are perfect.

In original photos, he said, “You can see where they ran out of paint at the factory and then the next batch wasn’t quite perfect but no one cared then.”

The plane has six 50-caliber machine guns that weigh about 60 pounds each, Salonen said, and the wings are loaded with authentic brass bullets, which can’t fire.

The Rolls Royce Merlin engine was rebuilt by Jack Roush of Roush Racing fame in Michigan. Some major components inside had to be replaced due to corrosion. Other some work was outsourced to specialists.

ALL WORTHWHILE

It took more than two years to restore the Go Buggy, but all that work was worthwhile with the Oshkosh award, Salonen said.

“It makes coming to work a little easier,” he said with a smile.

Individuals from all over the United States contract with Midwest Aero to restore their planes, and the recent honor at Oshkosh will help spur more business, he said. The company can work on two P-51s at a time.

Salonen said of Midwest Aero, “Mike’s business is a world-class operation. It’s a treasure going on here in Danville that most people don’t know about.

“It’s an amazing thing they have going on there. We’re on the map around the world when it comes to World War II warbirds.”

ON THE WEB

To learn more about Midwest Aero Restorations, visit the Web site http://www.midwestaero.com



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