Returning home from a far-too-short weekend vacation to the Adirondacks, our family stopped at a display of military aircraft outside of the former Plattsburgh (NY) Air Force Base. Typical of our family trips, I tried to cram in some learning, much to the disdain of our teenage and pre-teen children who’d rather kick a soccer ball or build Lego. Learning? On summer vacation? Ugh! But I digress.
Where we stopped had two Cold War-era aircraft on display, a B-47 Stratojet, and an F-111A Aardvark. That was cool unto-itself. Then we met Walt.
“Come on over and I’ll show you all around,” he said.
Walt is part of a volunteer group who are restoring both the Stratojet and the Aardvark at this park. We arrived after Walt and fellow volunteer Eric began their project on the Stratojet for the day: cleaning a panel.
“Duck under those bomb bay doors and you can see where we kept the Nukes,” Walt said to the kids so matter-of-factly. That is not a phrase I would have imagined hearing on a Sunday morning having grown up in the 1980s where the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction was still the norm. My elementary school still had drills of what to do in case of a Nuclear attack up until 1988(!)
Walt showed us all around the different parts of the aircraft. He spoke of his service in Vietnam and after, and later his work as a weapons officer for the United States Air Force.
“If we were flying this beast with armed nukes, we knew it was a one-way trip,” he said.
When Walt took us over to the Aardvark, he was even more animated talking about the work the group had done restoring the warplane. How the City of Plattsburgh, which was to look after this gift from the USAF, left the display in the park too close to the road where it was damaged from the road salt and years of neglect.
“Dummies,” he said. “It took a few years and a lot of work to fix her back up.”
The group charged with the duty to care for these planes now are mostly retirees from Plattsburgh AFB, along with some aviation enthusiasts. They have replaced panels, painted, mended, and polished the Aardvark back into shape. Now they work on the Stratojet. All done on their own time, no consultants or contractors used. Walt hinted that the group didn’t even get a permit for the work and he’d tell them “what for” if they asked him to. To an outsider like myself, it looked like that Aardvark could have flown out of that park on another mission.
The volunteers have done this work by keeping things simple, replacing expensive military-grade materials like magnesium-aluminum alloy where needed, with sheet metal.
“It looks right, that’s what counts. We all know she’ll not be flying again,” Walt jested.
Areas were polished out to a mirror-shine; holes were fixed; birds ejected from their nesting grounds inside the aircraft vents.
From this chance meeting, my kids took away the experience of meeting someone connected with history, and an era not too far past.
For me, in addition to reconnecting with my childhood, I got to see the efforts of a volunteer group restoring a monument to their area’s collective history. That is a good thing to see when you look at recent events and what is happening down the road from Morrisburg.