Restoration: Soggy Stratoliner

Boeing 307

DAVID KNOWLEN CHUCKLES AS HE RECALLS one idea for drying a waterlogged airplane: “Somebody suggested stuffing toilet paper rolls into the wings,” he says. “When they were soaked, just throw them away.”

Knowlen, the director of business affairs for Boeing’s commercial airplanes division, received hundreds of similar proposals in the weeks following March 28. On that day, a four-engine Boeing Stratoliner 307 that Knowlen and dozens of volunteers had spent six years restoring crashed into Seattle’s Elliott Bay within full view of startled diners at a popular waterfront eatery. The refurbished Stratoliner—the world’s first pressurized airliner and one of only 10 built—had been unveiled in June 2001 and was destined for the National Air and Space Museum’s new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia. But on an afternoon test flight, pilots Richard Nelson and Mike Carriker broke off an approach because a landing gear malfunctioned. The engineer manually extended the gear, but the airliner then lost power in all four engines, forcing Nelson to ditch.

After hearing the news, Knowlen, program manager for the restoration, started dialing the 70-plus volunteers who had taken a battered, neglected aircraft and painstakingly transformed it into a gleaming incarnation of the Stratoliner’s original luxe appearance. “To a person, they all said they’d go back to work,” Knowlen says. Thirty hours after the ditching, the Stratoliner was back in the hangar. Crews stripped off the engines, fuel tanks, and interior fittings and began flushing out Elliott Bay’s corrosive saltwater with fresh water from high-pressure hoses. (Another suggestion e-mailed to Knowlen: “Just dip it in a fresh-water lake.”)

Six weeks after the mishap, the Stratoliner was perched on jacks, water still dripping from open panels, its hand-polished aluminum skin splotchy from its dip in saltwater. But Knowlen saw reason for optimism. “This looks miserable,” he says, running a hand along a jagged gash in the starboard wing, one of many gouges and dents. “But the aircraft is structurally sound.” For that, credit the Stratoliner’s rugged construction. The aircraft, which first flew in 1938, shared many design features with the B-17, one of the most battle-worthy aircraft ever built.

Not that there isn’t plenty of work ahead. Electrical components, engines, and the Stratoliner’s Pullman-car-like leather-and-wood interior appointments all were damaged. The engines, instruments, and wiring are being rebuilt or replaced; such rare items as the wall fabric, woven with the Pan American logo by F. Schumacher & Co. of New York, was stained by hydraulic fluid and saltwater and will have to be re-created. Crews are constructing new skin panels to replace many of those damaged.

Weeks after the crash, investigators continued to look for the cause of the Stratoliner’s near-catastrophic mishap. The culprit clearly was lack of fuel, and National Transportation Safety Board investigators were looking at little else, according to Debra Eckrote, an investigator in the Seattle office of the agency. But why did experienced pilots allow the tanks to go dry? One plausible scenario: The gauges or fuel tank sensors were simply wrong. In fact, checking their accuracy had been among the goals of the test flights, as engineers compared fuel loads before and after the flights with instrument readings of consumption and fuel levels. As this issue went to press, the NTSB had tested the fuel system and was finishing its report, which will incorporate information provided by the pilots.

Knowlen is determinedly cheery about the re-restoration. “Out of a situation that was unfortunate,” he says, “some good things have come. So many people who had not been involved [in the original project] have offered help.” But for some of those who spent years restoring the Stratoliner, the sight of its dulled and torn skin was, at best, disheartening. “If you stand back and look at it now, it’s a little discouraging,” says Elliott Brogren, who retired from Boeing after 35 years as an engineer. Brogren had spent more than two years rebuilding the Stratoliner’s battered luggage compartment. But at least this time he has all the pieces he needs. “Before, we were scrounging all over for parts,” Brogren says as he carefully repairs a window shade on the hatch used by Nelson, Carriker, and their two passengers to escape the downed craft. “Now, when we take something off, we save it for repair or use it as a template [for creating a duplicate].” Since the Stratoliner is the only one remaining of its kind, there are no sources for spare parts.

An accident of timing is the reason only 10 Stratoliners were built, according to F. Robert van der Linden, the airplane’s curator at the National Air and Space Museum. “It was a great airplane,” he says, “but World War II got in the way.” By the end of the war, the bigger, faster Lockheed Constellation had supplanted the Stratoliner.

At the new museum, the Stratoliner will join a Constellation, the Boeing Dash 80 (the 707’s prototype, now under restoration right next to the Stratoliner), and a Concorde, among other airliners. In late June, Boeing decided to again restore the aircraft to flying condition, so it can fly to its new home, instead of having to be trucked. No one wanted the Stratoliner’s last flight to be the one that ended in Elliott Bay.

—Douglas Gantenbein

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