April 5, 2010
A makeshift screen hung from a support rig that read “Three Tons.” Dave Morris, a curator from Britain’s Fleet Air Arm Museum, projected on it three slides: Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” a Ming vase, and a Chippendale end table. “What if these were yours?” he asked the audience at the National Air and Space Museum’s Garber restoration facility in Suitland, Maryland. “How would you ‘restore’ them? Use a little Bondo on the vase? Strip the table and apply Minwax? Touch up the Venus yourself?” Of course not. “Then why would we do that to a 1944 Corsair?”
A few years ago, Morris led a team of three who reverse-restored a Corsair by removing the paint that had been applied in the 1960s to reveal the original factory paint, faint aircraft numbers, squadron insignias, roundels (modified in the field), and scuffs and dings incurred on the job. The purpose was not to roll out a Corsair that looked as good as new; it was to make the aircraft an archeological site. Morris described it as a sort of “CSI approach,” and by consulting with universities, forensic laboratories, and people who had flown or helped maintain the airplane, the team unearthed a treasure trove of information about its life.
With a laser pointer, Morris highlighted sections of the offending paint scheme. “Look at this bright, shiny red nose,” he said, referring to the propeller hub. “And the zazzy red lipstick rings around the gun portals.” No self-respecting Corsair would have been seen in such gaudy makeup. Millimeter by millimeter, the team chipped off the red to reveal the original black paint on the hub. Some of the black was missing, likely due to wartime wear and tear. In time, all the 1960s paint yielded to scrapers and brushes.
The team learned that the scuff marks on the prop were incurred during an emergency landing on an aircraft carrier, when the prop tangled with the barrier. They learned that the aircraft retained its original factory installed engine: Engine bolts could not have been removed without damaging a paper ticket that Pratt & Whitney slapped on the engines in new aircraft. By studying drip marks on the fuselage that seemed to be running “upside down,” they learned that primer had been applied to skin sections that were then hung any which way to dry. Through laboratory consult, they learned that the gas-reactive patch on the left wing still functioned.
The wealth of detail has been meticulously documented, and the files are now a superb source of reference on the Corsair in the wild. Next up: A Grumman Martlet, the British version of the Wildcat.
Read all about it in Morris’ book, Corsair KD431, the Time Capsule Fighter.
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