Precious metal: aviation enthusiasts working to restore World War II trainer to flying status
A group of aviation enthusiasts at Eden Prairie-based Wings of the North have been working for nearly seven years to restore a piece of World War II history.
The volunteer group recently showed off the latest work on its Vultee BT-15 basic trainer aircraft during the organization’s holiday party Jan. 12 in a hangar at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie. In its original role, students would learn navigation and some aerobatics in the 450 horsepower aircraft before moving on to a more advanced type. The aircraft was recently moved from a smaller workspace in Chaska.
The U.S. Air Force (known before 1947 as the “U.S. Army Air Corps”) received the BT-15 from the Vultee factory in March 1943. It was used to train pilots at the Army Air Forces Basic Pilot Training School in Gunter Field in Alabama before being transferred to the 554th Base Unit at Love Field in Dallas.
The fact that it trained pilots at Gunter Field got Wings of the North President Greg Kaminski excited. His uncle, Vincent Kaminski, trained there before heading overseas to fly a B-17 Flying Fortress named “Stormy Weather.” Vincent, a first lieutenant, was shot down and killed flying his 27th combat mission in May 1944. He was 21 years old. Richard Kaminski, Greg’s father and Vincent’s brother, was a gunner on another B-17. He survived the war and currently lives in Richfield.
“This plane got there two weeks after (Vincent) left,” Greg said. “I was going through his log, thinking, ‘Maybe he flew it, because that would be so cool,’ but it was two weeks off.”
Wings of the North’s BT-15 was placed in storage in August 1944 before being dropped from inventory a month later. The plane, Kaminski said, simply wasn’t needed anymore. Nearly two years later, LaVern Pfeifer of Stillwater purchased the BT-15 for $200 after it was released as excess inventory by the War Assets Administration.
The BT-15 last flew in the early 1950s and changed hands a number of times during the last 60 years. It spent most of that time disassembled, Kaminski said. Restoration projects so far having included reconditioning the plane’s tube frame, re-skinning the upper wings and rear fuselage of the aircraft, and re-sealing the gas tanks.
“We don’t know (how long it will take to finish),” Kaminski said. “We work on it Saturday mornings and Wednesdays evenings. It’s going to be couple of years down the road.”
Jeff and Colin Alt of Bloomington were among the guests attending the Wings of the North holiday party. The pair spent part of the event poking around the BT-15, with Greg putting Colin on his shoulders for part of the time so he could peer into the cockpit.
“It’s a lot more done (than the last time we saw it,),” Greg said. “It didn’t have the other wing on the other side. They didn’t have the wheels on, and a lot of the cockpit stuff wasn’t done. The tail wasn’t on, and the motor cowling wasn’t there.”
“I think it’s interesting how these can be so heavy and actually fly,” Colin said.
“It makes it pretty cool,” Jeff said.
The process doesn’t come without physical and mental elbow grease. Documents are available on the parts breakdown for the BT-15, but reassembly instructions are only available on microfilm. The organization doesn’t have a microfilm reader. Even with the instructions, Kaminski said, obvious questions remain, like “Where do you rivet first when you are attaching the wings to the fuselage?”
“Every time I come here, I learn something new,” Kaminski said. “What we’re learning is how they did this back in the day. If you think about it, this was built (40 years) after the Wright Flyer first flew. Look at how much we learned in that time. We’re learning how they did this.”
For more information on Wings of the North, including information on volunteering to help with the restoration of the BT-15, go to wotn.org.
Contact Joseph Palmersheim at firstname.lastname@example.org