The Thursday Regulars

In the Museum: The Thursday Regulars

An all-volunteer crew works on the Museums Junior
An all-volunteer crew works on the Museum’s Junior. From left: George Rousseau (by wing), Karl Heinzel (with cowling), Melissa Courtney (center), Joe Fichera (near tail), and Roger Guest (by prop). Eric Long

Looks aren’t everything. That’s what curators probably muttered when the Curtiss-Wright Junior first entered the National Air Museum’s collections in 1959. The petite aircraft had been part of an airshow act, its wings and tail sprinkled liberally with large polka dots. The fabric on its fuselage and the engine cowling had been removed, and it bore little resemblance to the sleek blue-and-silver airplane the Curtiss-Wright company had enthusiastically promoted back in 1931.

Over the years, the CW-1 patiently waited in the restoration queue at the Museum’s Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland, but something always happened to postpone its makeover. 

Six years ago the airplane finally got its chance. And on most Thursdays since then, an all-volunteer group has met to restore the sporty monoplane. From the beginning, the project was a challenge. “We started with a bunch of junk and made an airplane out of it,” says Joe Fichera, who is heading the project.

Fichera, who began working for the Museum in 1969 and retired as a shop foreman in 1984, returned as a volunteer in 1996 to work on the Pitts Special S-1C, which took five years to restore.

When Fichera, along with volunteers Roger Guest and George and Cindy Rousseau finished the Pitts, NASM aeronautics curator Dorothy Cochrane suggested the Curtiss-Wright Junior as a successor. “Joe is a master restorer of antique and classic aircraft,” says Cochrane. “It was a natural thing for them to do. Certainly we always knew we wanted to restore it. It really didn’t look like a normal Junior, which was basically used to get people interested in flying.”

The two-seat, dual-control, open-cockpit aircraft was cheap to operate, soon becoming one of the most popular flivver-type airplanes of the 1930s. By June 1931, in just over six months, 125 Juniors had sold, each priced at $1,494 (about $21,000 in today’s dollars). Some 270 were built.

“We wanted to restore it back to the configuration and color to illustrate the popular appeal of the Junior’s design,” says Cochrane. The Junior (donated by Robert E. Maytag of the Maytag Company) “was initially very well received. Then the Depression really gripped the country and all lightplane sales went down the tubes,” Cochrane explains. “The Travel Airs, the WACOs—they’re bigger planes that cost a lot to buy, and they were more than what your entry-level pilot would want to handle. The whole idea of the lightplane movement was to be able to make a plane that appealed to just weekend pilots and sportsmen who didn’t have a lot of money, and who didn’t want to do a lot of training.”

Pilot Melissa Courtney joined the restoration crew in 2003, and Karl Heinzel, a shop foreman who had retired in 2008, recently returned to help. The project must be finished by the end of 2009, when all work at Garber will cease as the shop prepares to move to its new home, at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia.

The first task: wings.

“The wings were in horrible shape,” says George Rousseau. “There was rot and breakage and old repairs. It would have been simpler to build brand-new wings, but that’s not a restoration.”

“There’s an easy way and a hard way, and we picked the hard way,” says Guest, who has been restoring aircraft at Garber for 13 years.

The airplane, which has had a number of owners, was damaged several times in the 1950s. “We’ll never know this,” says Guest, “but I think we got wings off of two different airplanes.”

“The ailerons were different,” explains Rousseau. “One had wood ribs in it, the other had aluminum ribs. One [wing] had a metal compression rib, and the other a wooden compression rib.”

The fragile wings were rebuilt according to the original blueprints, which were in the collection. “We put fabric on them,” says Fichera, “and we wet it down to get the wrinkles out of it. And when you wet it down, it tightens the fabric up. We’re standing around, talking about something else, and we hear this horrible crack crick crack crick. And the back end of the ribs all broke. So we had to start all over again. We reinforced all the ribs on that wing, and then we decided we’d better reinforce them on the other wing, so we did, and we marked everything that is not original.”

The Museum’s CW-1 had been fitted with a 65-horsepower Lycoming engine; somewhere along the way, it parted with its original Szekely SR-3-O engine, known for its temperamental qualities. “People would be flying along and the cylinder would come off,” says Fichera. “That can ruin your whole day.” The designers’ solution was to tie a steel cable around the cylinder heads. That would keep the cylinder from being thrown, and the piece from crashing back into the propeller.

In 1998, Ken Hyde of the Wright Experience in Warrenton, Virginia, learned Cochrane was looking for an original Szekely engine. He donated one for the restoration.

The volunteers, who have worked together for 13 years, are proud—and sad—that the Junior will be the last aircraft to be fully restored at Garber. “As a group,” says Rousseau, “this is our last hurrah.”

Rebecca Maksel is an associate editor at Air & Space/Smithsonian.

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