Birds of a Feather : Restoring Historic Aircraft Is a Labor of Love for Volunteers at Gillespie Field


John Klein is "the baby." He's 67.

The other members of the 11-man crew are a little older--most of them veterans of military service during World War II.

What binds them together is a love affair with airplanes, especially old airplanes. Klein, Joe Gwizdak, 70, Art Dickman, 82, and their companions gather regularly at an old hangar in a quiet corner of Gillespie Field to help patch donated aircraft back together for the San Diego Aerospace Museum, headquartered 12 miles away in San Diego's Balboa Park.

"It's a lot of fun," said Gwizdak, who served as a gunnery instructor on B-17 and B-25 bombers during World War II. "Working on planes you've heard about all your life, it's just great."

The aircraft they're currently restoring are a mixed lot, ranging from an F-14 Tomcat jet fighter retired by the Navy earlier this year to a P-51 pursuit plane from World War II to a 1929 Kinner Bird biplane.

Different members of the team have different specialties. Ira Corpening, once a B-17 pilot stationed in Italy, studied upholstering on the GI Bill after the war and now does much of the fabric work. Dickman is a skilled mechanic and woodworker. Dick Weixeldorfer, who formerly ran an auto repair shop, does most of the painting.

Gwizdak said the restoration team reports to the hangar Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, often starting at 7 a.m. and working until supper time.

"I'm always kind of chomping at the bit until I get down here," he admitted with a grin. "But if we came every day, the chores wouldn't get done and the wives would complain. Three days a week is just right. My wife can do her thing and I can do mine."

The men, all retired, volunteer their time.

"A younger fellow--he was about 35--came down here awhile back, was interested in what we do, indicated that he'd like to work with us," Gwizdak said. "Then he asked how much he'd be paid. I told him, 'Nothing.' He said, 'You come down here and do all this work for nothing? You must be crazy.' "

Gwizdak and Klein took some visitors on a tour of the Gillespie Field hangar earlier this month. They pointed out some of the museum's jet-age aircraft--the F-14, an A-6E and an A-7 from the Navy, and a nose section salvaged from an Air Force B-52 bomber--but they devoted most of their time to the planes built before World War II.

"This one is a French-built Morane Saulier from the 1930s that was used in the movie 'The Blue Max,' " Gwizdak said, pointing to a small, fragile-looking silver plane with open cockpits. "George Peppard, who starred in the film, owned it and flew it. It's one of the best aerobatic planes you can find."

Klein showed the visitors a stripped metal frame that looked sort of like an elongated bird cage.

"This one here is an American Eagle biplane, built in 1929," he said. "It looked like hell when we started. We're rebuilding the whole thing. We don't have any plans for it, so as we took it apart, we took a lot of photographs. That's what we're working from."

Klein said the American Eagle should be flyable when the restoration work is completed, although he doubts that anyone will attempt it.

"It has a Curtis OX-5 engine in it, and they tend to quit on you," he said. "That might be OK if you were out over the plains of Iowa, where you can land anywhere, but not around here."

As Dickman checked the clamps holding some reglued wing ribs on the wood and fabric Kinner, Klein shot a disdainful glance at the P-51--a sleekly glamorous hot rod from World War II that has become the darling of collectors and airplane racers.

"It's a toy now, not a war bird," he said with a snort. "Before we got it, somebody took the armor and fuselage fuel tank out, removed the gun ports on the wings and put a second seat in it. It's real pretty, but it's not the real thing anymore."

He told the visitors about one he worked on a few years back that was "the real thing"--a Spad 7 from World War I.

"When we took it apart, we found a message that someone had written on one of the wing ribs when they built it," he said. "It said, 'Screw the Kaiser.' "

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