Retired war bird now aviation jewel

Volunteers at air museum lovingly restore fighter jet

April 12, 2008 

LIF JRW SKYHAWK ROCKETS

Ralph Robledo, an air Force veteran who researched the bomber's history and led the restoration work, walks by the rockets on the A-4 Skyhawk attack bomber at Castle Air Museum.

JOHN WALKER — Fresno Bee Staff Photo

ATWATER -- Old planes "land" at the Castle Air Museum on a lot less than a wing and a prayer. They usually come in pieces, their once-proud bodies taken apart and carried in on trucks.

But the museum is a place where obsolete war birds, even those that have been rotting in the sun for years, can live again. All it takes is the patient, determined work of the museum's team of restoration volunteers.

The 35 volunteers, many of whom were stationed at Castle Air Force Base before it closed in 1995, are masters at turning junk into aviation jewels. Their most recent project, which took thousands of hours over 18 months, is the restoration of a Navy A-4 Skyhawk attack aircraft that saw service during the Vietnam War.

Although the plane never will fly again, next month it will become the 50th aircraft on display at the museum. A look at what it took to restore the plane offers insight into its history.

The Douglas Aircraft Corp. built 2,960 Skyhawks from 1954 to 1979, according to a Web site maintained by the Boeing Co., which merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997.

The A-4 was first used in combat during carrier-launched raids on North Vietnam on Aug. 4, 1964. A-4 pilots taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese included GOP presidential candidate and Arizona Sen. John S. McCain.

Skyhawks also were used by Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur war and were part of the Navy's Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron from 1974 to 1986.

The Castle plane was built in the early 1960s as an A-4C, said Joe Pruzzo, the museum's executive director. The first letter stands for the plane's mission, "Attack," the number represents the sequence within the mission, and the second letter represents updated or modified versions of the original model.

The A-4C version of the plane later was converted into an A-4L, with added electronic systems housed in a so-called "camel's hump" behind the cockpit. As an A-4L, the plane was assigned to the River Rattlers Navy Reserve squadron in Memphis, Tenn.

The restored A-4L bears the River Rattlers' rattlesnake logo and the name of its last pilot, Cmdr. N.J. Flagler, who now lives in Lake Sherwood, Mo.

"As an A-4C, the plane made two cruises during the Vietnam War," said Ralph Robledo, who researched the bomber's history and led the restoration work.

During the Vietnam cruises, it flew missions from the aircraft carriers USS Midway, USS Coral Sea and the USS Ranger. The plane was retired from service in 1978 and was in storage at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla., when the Castle Air Museum arranged for its transport to Atwater in August 2006.

"We got it on indefinite loan," Pruzzo said. "The plane didn't cost us anything, but we had to pay to have it disassembled and shipped to California."

Pruzzo said that with labor and shipping, plus the expense of replacement parts, the restoration cost about $12,000.

"When it came in, it looked like another pile of junk," said Bill Hiller, manager of the museum's restoration program. The cockpit was gutted, the tires were shot and some key components, such as the center pylon for the plane's rocket pods, were missing.

"We got it into the hangar and went to work on it," Hiller said. "The first thing we did was put it together and get it up on its wheels."

Next, the workers compiled a list of everything that was missing, and museum curator Larry Birks sought replacement parts from the "boneyards" at other aviation museums.

"I got on the phone and started calling other museums," Birks said. "We wound up getting parts from six places from Florida and New York to Arizona and California." What Birks couldn't find elsewhere the volunteers made themselves, including radar warning transmitters and receivers in the plane's nose and tail.

Gauges hard to find

Russ Schaff, who restored the cockpit, said his biggest challenge was finding replacement gauges.

"Clocks are the hardest things to find," he said. "People remove them from old planes and take them home." With the help of Birks, Schaff found replacements for everything that was missing in the A-4L's cockpit -- and got a little surprise in one package from Florida.

"The radar scope they sent us came with some seaweed and clamshells," he said. "We reupholstered the pilot's seat and replaced all the missing gauges. The cockpit is complete right down to blueprints."

Dave Prince of Atwater has been restoring planes at the museum for 25 years. He helped install the A-4L's wings and landing gear.

"It's always a feeling of success when you get a plane up on its wheels and you can move it around," he said.

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