Restoring "warbird" could help heal wounds of Vietnam
HIXSON, TN. (WRCB) -- Gulf Wars veteran Peter O'Hare may be stating the obvious when we ask about his fascination with vintage warbirds.
"There's an almost love affair between pilot and aircraft," he says.
The relationship goes deeper than skin with the Vietnam-era T28 Trojan his Hixson Flight Museum is restoring in its hanger.
"This is a really ugly airplane," O'Hare says.
"Unless you're a grunt in a foxhole, and you see one of these come over top of you, shooting at the bad guys."
Any wonder her nickname is the Beast?
"It could have five mark 81-82 bombs, rockets, and 50 caliber machine guns on each side," O'Hare says.
"It was a tank! It still is a tank."
The Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps put hundreds of T28s into service training our fighter pilots for faster jets.
But almost half a century later, putting a Beast back into service is neither inexpensive nor easy.
O'Hare discovered the bulk of this hulk in storage near Chicago, more than a year-and-a-half ago.
"I think the inventory we had about 1385 parts that we're all there," he says.
To call it a scavenger hunt would be an understatement.
The tail section came from Cambodia. Our troops had destroyed the aircraft to prevent the Khmer Rouge from using it against them.
The engine came off of a T28 that was part of the arsenal aboard the U.S.S. Champlain, the aircraft carrier that retrieved our first man in space, Mercury 7 astronaut Alan Shepard on May 5, 1961.
The log books detail every tour-of-duty, maintenance effort and retrofit. The service manuals are a veritable Encyclopedia Britannica.
The Museum has counted on such paperwork for more than historical accuracy.
"We tasked the impossible," O'Hare says.
"We're gonna knock out (this restoration) in two weeks."
The task has drawn aircraft mechanics and technicians, Vietnam-era veterans and neophytes from as far away as New York and Hawaii.
"We've had about 80 come in so far, as young as eight and as old as 80," he says.
"When you say to people you're gonna do the impossible, it attracts some people who want to do the impossible. They want to be part of something larger than themselves."
Many have immortalized their experience by signing the landing gear door. It will be displayed in the Museum's 'Ready Room' for flight crews.
"There are lessons larger than the aircraft itself," O'Hare says.
The T28 has a virtual twin, ready-to-fly, hangered at Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport. It's not clear whether this Beast will be fully-functional or a static model.
"We learned some very valuable lessons during those tumultuous times. the worst thing we do is lose those lessons,"
The Beast, he believes, may re-open the discussion of a war that, 37 years after the fall of Saigon, still bears open wounds.
"It's the discussion that we need to have," O'Hare says.
"To explain why did we have to go through all that?"