Air Force veterans, other volunteers work to restore two Cold War-era planes
By Tom French
Since 2017, Air Force veterans previously stationed at the Plattsburgh Air Force Base have been meeting every Saturday morning when the weather is nice at the Clyde Lewis Air Park along Route 9 to restore two Cold War-era, nuclear-capable bombers with histories at the base going back almost 70 years.
The 1953 B-47E and 1968 FB-111A were both on the flight line at Plattsburgh before being placed on display when they were decommissioned. Over the decades, their condition deteriorated as the shiny aluminum of the B-47 rotted and tarnished. Birds made nests in nooks and crannies, and various residues seeped out along with the pigeon poop.
“When we first moved back to Plattsburgh eight years ago, it was so sad seeing these planes neglected,” Judy Taillon says. Her husband, Bob, is one of the volunteers who was stationed at the base as an aircraft mechanic in the 1980s.
The older B-47, one of only 23 still surviving, was stationed at the base from 1955 until it was retired in 1966. It won a bombing and navigation competition in 1965. The right side of the fuselage reads “World’s Best B-47 and Crew.”
The plane’s name “The Pride of the Adirondacks,” was selected shortly before the competition through a local newspaper naming contest with several hundred entries. Vera Cummings won a $25 savings bond for her suggestion.
Originally, Pride of the Adirondacks was placed on display at the entrance to the base. It was later moved to its current home along with the FB-111.
Retired Col. Joe McNichols, also a volunteer at the adjacent Plattsburgh Air Force Base Museum, initially organized the restoration effort. “Our goal is for our grandkids to see these planes with their kids.”
The group decided to restore the FB-111 first because it was smaller and hadn’t been exposed to the elements for as long. Still, it “was held together with duct tape. All the windows were gone. It was a real mess,” according to McNichols.
They completed the work in 2019, though they still maintain the craft as needed. Its proximity to Route 9 requires washing off road salt at least once a year. FB-111s served at the base from 1970 until 1991.
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“It was the most magical airplane in the world,” McNichols says. With speeds up to Mach 2 and swing wings, “It was leading edge when it came out.”
After a crack was discovered on the aft spar of the right wing, it was placed on a pedestal in front of the Air Force Base Hospital on New York Road. Jeff Boren, the crew chief for the plane at the time, found the crack when he was stationed at the base. “I was doing a phase inspection of the wings, and there was the crack across the spar.”
One of the first tasks in restoring both planes was cleaning out bird nests and other debris that had collected over the years.
Retired Chief Master Sergeant Walt Kotzur tells how they took out several 30-gallon bags. “Even when we screened it off to make sure the birds couldn’t get in, they found a way – any little nook and cranny. It was unbelievable how they fit in.”
Over two dozen exterior panels on the B-47 had to be replaced. “You could put your finger through because the poop and pee had eaten through the metal,” according to McNichols. “We bought aircraft grade aluminum, cut it to size, and put it in. These guys can do anything.”
Another labor-intensive task is polishing and waxing. Aluminum turns gray from oxidization. Taillon points toward the B-47. “You can see the areas we haven’t polished on the top right side and then we’re going to polish and paint the wing.” Various sections of the exterior are painted including the bottom of the fuselage which was white as a nuclear flash deterrent.
Visitors stop by while the group works on the plane. Eric Kotzur, Walt’s son, helps two young people up the ladder into the cockpit and describes how the ejection system worked. The 13-foot canopy would fly off first, then the pilot and co-pilot would be launched. A third crew member would escape by dropping below the plane.
Eric’s father was stationed at the base twice. “My dad started and ended his career here. I was a tag-along. I went everywhere he went.”
It’s hot where Eric crouches, but the visitors in the seats are cool because the canopy is slightly ajar. Opening the canopy after 50 years was a priority.
“It got so hot you could only be in there like 10 minutes max,” McNichols says. “So everyone decided enough is enough.” They knew the latch was connected to the landing gears to prevent the canopy from blowing away in flight, but they still needed a jack to open it. Bob Taillon purchased a bottle jack that is still used today.
Opening the bomb bay doors for the first time was also difficult. “The first guy went through the crawl space (from the cockpit) and had to jump on the doors to get them open.” After removing the doors, the group took them to a workshop for restoration.
Walt points out various components to a family from Killington, Vt. “I came here as a two-striper in ‘64 and returned in ‘89 to the same squadron as Chief of the Squadron.” Walt retired in 1992. One of his jobs was loading the bombs into the bay. Originally, B-47s could carry one nuclear weapon until the bombs shrank in size and two would fit.
Walt relates how three generals, visiting for a reunion, argued over missions they’d flown in the plane. “It was the coolest thing in the world. A four-star, two-star, and one-star general standing right in here.”
Their signatures, along with a couple dozen others, grace the inside of the bay. “All these names are of people that were either air crew, pilots, co-pilots, navigators, or maintenance.”
“I have everybody come in here and sign (during reunions),” McNichols says. “They get the biggest kick out of it.”
Recently, several engine cones were reinstalled after being restored. Jeff lifts one still with significant holes. “That’s what they looked like when we took them out. The bird’s lived in these things, so we patched the holes, fiberglassed them, bondoed them, smoothed them out, made them look respectable, painted them, and then put them back in the engines. We’re trying to keep as much original stuff as we possibly can.”
The result looks new.
The efforts of the volunteers is also recognized in names painted on the planes. “We’re taking a little artistic license,” McNichols explains. Some volunteers’ names appear on the fuselages alongside the historically-correct listings of the crews and crew chiefs.
One of the volunteers is high school junior and member of the Plattsburgh Civil Air Patrol, George Cortright. “My dad and I always drive by here, and they had this little sign by the road (asking for volunteers). I’m really into military aviation and the guys are really cool. They have interesting stories.” George has also brought friends to help.
Cortright tells how “the Colonel,” was flying the FB-111 for the last time. “So he decided to go out with a bang – 100 feet above the runway going 700 miles an hour, which is insanely illegal.”
McNichols is proud of his fellow Air Force veterans and points to the gray hair of one. “When you get on a commercial jet, that’s the color hair you want (on the pilot). And you can always tell a Navy guy because he smacks the runway. If you barely touch it, then you know that’s a good Air Force pilot.”
People interested in volunteering or making a donation toward the restoration efforts can reach out to the group through its Plattsburgh Aircraft Restoration Facebook page.