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Restoration Team Takes Odd Warbird Under Its Wing

November 06, 1986|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

Ed, they said with tolerance, it just can't be done. . . .

Not in the West of the '50s that is trying to forget World War II. Not when government support and donors' monies are going to air museums back east, to the Smithsonian Institution and the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB.

But Ed Maloney opened his Planes of Fame museum anyway--now a healthy cluster of hangars and compounds at Chino Airport and a display of 60 war birds from a 1916 French biplane to Korean-era jets.

Ed, they repeated in the '70s, that plane simply will not get off the ground. . . .

Not a Japanese Zero that hasn't flown for three decades. Not when it is all bent bits and broken pieces and the only plans disappeared with World War II.

But Maloney did rebuild his Guadalcanal green fighter--and in 1978, at the invitation of the Japanese government, he took the Zero to Japan for a commemorative flight over Tokyo.

Ed, they're now saying, you certainly won't pull this one off. . . .

Not the restoration of a Flying Wing of the '40s, a concept of tailless flight that even pioneer designer-builder Jack Northrop, the Air Force and its best test pilots were unable to tame. Heavens, the government chopped up the program's leftovers in 1949 to make sure this airplane stayed dead.

But true to form and his deaf ears, Maloney is resurrecting yet another relic, a 1942 Northrop N-9 Flying Wing.

Says Maloney, 57, an inveterate scavenger of military boneyards and indefatigable curator of war bird history: "If you put something aside until you're ready, if your goal never changes, if you keep working away at something a little at a time, nothing is impossible."

This latest impossibility is the sole survivor of four scaled-down prototypes that evolved into the giant and subsequently aborted B-35 and B-49 Northrop Flying Wing bombers.

Panel by rib, aileron by longeron, this wood and aluminum boomerang is currently resuming its shape at a warehouse "somewhere in Los Angeles." The exact location is well guarded. For when one is bringing a dodo back from extinction, Maloney explained, there's no time for non-productive chatter with the curious.

Each weekend, 12 to two dozen (depending on individual availability set largely by the STF--Spousal Tolerance Factor) volunteers, including former Northrop engineers who worked on the airplane 44 years ago, show for work. They've been at it every Saturday, from first coffee to Miller Time, for five years. They'll likely work for another two years before the N-9 flies again.

Project manager is Ron Hackworth, 47, of Long Beach and McDonnell-Douglas. He has restored antique airplanes before and happily concedes that the N-9 project is "the biggest mistake of my life . . . because I don't think anyone fully realized the complexities of this airplane.

"It's always harder to restore than build because you are restoring someone else's development."

Ward Parker, ex-Northrop, is in charge of rebuilding the N-9's complex hydraulic system. His wife, Beryl, assists. So does a son, Keith, his wife Gail, and their children Brian and Robin.

Worked on the Original

Bion ("that stands for Bionic") Provost, 71, another Northrop man who worked on the original, is a journeyman engineer capable of working everything from the airplane's resin-impregnated woods to its all-hydraulic, irreversible controls. At 71, this phoenix has become the largest purpose in his life.

"I think this is one of the greatest things I could ever be involved in," he said. Provost is re-creating a wing rib using old, rotted shards as a form. "I look forward to getting up every Saturday and coming down here."

John Benjamin, non-pilot, non-engineer, but an aerospace executive recruiter adept at finding anyone, is in charge of procurement, purchasing, scavenging and light larceny. It has cost him, he said, time, money, relationships and a social life.

"My contribution is getting all the parts," Benjamin said. "Fortunately, 99% of the parts we have obtained we've got free, and for five years my apartment has looked rather like a parts bin."

"There probably are 200 vendors (subcontractors) still out there who worked on the N-9 and we're contacting them whenever and wherever needed. Goodyear has come up with wheels and tires. Bendix and Crane's Hydro-Aire Division at Burbank are helping with the hydraulics. The engines were eight-cylinders built by Franklin who are out of business but Precision Aero at Long Beach is rebuilding them . . . so, basically, the airplane will be zero time (brand new)."

On Its Own Three Legs

The airplane is standing on its own three legs and new tires. Its center section, including welded, tubular steel frame, engine drive shafts and propellers have been refurbished to pristine. Outer wing spars and panels are forming. The work, however, hasn't always looked this good.

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