Volunteers restoring DC-3

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 26, 2011

By Karissa Minn
SPENCER — The Potomac Pacemaker, a passenger plane built in the mid-1900s, lies on its belly like a beached whale in the Back Shop of the North Carolina Transportation Museum.
Now stranded in the expansive warehouse, the Douglas DC-3 passenger plane awaits a spot on display beside the museum’s other vehicles.
One day each month, volunteers work diligently to restore the airplane to prime condition for the benefit of future museum visitors.
Robert Reed, a member of the Piedmont Aviation Historical Society, decided to lead the restoration project at the Transportation Museum in February 2010.
“I had seen it shortly after it came from a museum in Durham in 2004,” Reed said. “Talking to some of my colleagues after seeing it, we said, ‘I don’t know. That airplane’s not in a condition to ever be restored again.’”
But early last year, he got a closer look at the World War II-era plane and changed his mind. The Advance resident began to seek out other interested people at the Spencer museum.
Reed’s list of active volunteers contains about two dozen people, and another 15 are listed as inactive. Not all of the active volunteers participate regularly, he said, and there are typically about eight to 12 people working at a time.
On the last work day on April 16, Reed said he was surprised to see 17 people show up in spite of a severe midday storm that produced a tornado in Rowan County.
The volunteers have met on the third Saturday of every month except December since April of last year. They have worked 11 days total, spending most of that time gutting the airplane. Most of the interior will not be visible on display.
Reed estimates it will take another 5 years of monthly work sessions to get the Potomac Pacemaker restored and exhibit-ready, depending on their pace and budget.
The body of the aircraft was repainted in 1978 when it went on display in Durham, but it shows plenty of wear and tear. Sections of the dusty wings and tail lay dismantled on the warehouse floor.
“It’s been a hard job, because every bolt on the airplane has been rusted and frozen,” Reed said. “It’s been exposed to the elements all these years.”
Several of the people working on the Potomac Pacemaker are former employees of Piedmont Airlines, including Reed himself.
Reed worked there for nearly 40 years, he said, starting at a young age in 1950 and ending with his retirement when the airline merged with US Airways in 1989. He was a ticket agent who not only sold tickets but also loaded, fueled and helped marshal airplanes on the ground.
He also did a bit of maintenance work, during which he learned about airplanes like the DC-3.
“For me and a lot of the others who are Piedmont people, it’s a labor of love,” Reed said.
Other volunteers are current pilots and mechanics, while still others have no experience in the field. Their interest ranges from casual curiosity to admiration and passion.
“A love of aviation and airplanes gets into your blood,” Reed said. “Even if you’ve not worked on or piloted them, you can still be fascinated by airplanes.”
Salisbury resident Bill Behrendt has found a life-size opportunity to continue his childhood hobby of making model planes.
“I always had an interest in airplanes when I was a kid,” Behrendt said. “I thought about becoming a pilot, but I never did it.”
Behrendt spent much of April’s session — his second one — working in the nose area of the plane, removing cables near the space where the pilot and copilot’s feet would have rested.
“I always liked the things going on at the transportation museum,” he said. “I’ve thought about volunteering to restore steam engines and cars, but I never did.”
He said he’s looking forward to seeing the results of the group’s hard work when the airplane is finished and on display.
Martha Jackson, who helped acquire the Potomac Pacemaker for the Transportation Museum, joined the restoration project after it reignited her own interest.
“My dad was a Navy pilot and a commercial pilot,” Jackson said. “I always loved flying and anything to do with aviation. Piedmont was my favorite airline, and I actually cried when it merged with US Airways.”
Jackson, a curator with North Carolina State Historic Sites, said she began talking to Transportation Museum staff several years ago about trying to find a Piedmont Airlines DC-3 passenger airplane. They finally found one available at a Durham museum in 2004.
Jackson now drives from her home in Raleigh to help on some of the work days. She said she is having fun learning how to use power tools, including one that helps knock loose the airplane’s rusted screws.
Jackson said she doesn’t know much about mechanics or aircraft, so working on the Potomac Pacemaker has been a “learning experience.”
“It’s not only giving me a chance to learn the plane literally from the inside out, it’s giving me an opportunity to work alongside fellows who worked with Piedmont,” she said.
Bill Wilkerson was a commercial pilot for Piedmont Airlines and US Airways for 32 years before he retired. He joined the group of volunteers working on the Potomac Pacemaker in November of last year.
“In my early aviation life, I worked as a mechanic,” Wilkerson said. “I love working on aircraft, but I never worked on a DC-3, which was such a part of Piedmont’s history.”
The Pleasant Garden resident said he has enjoyed talking to other former employees he hadn’t met before. He also likes getting a close look at the DC-3’s elaborate construction.
“This is a very historic aircraft,” he said. “It was the first real successful commercial airliner. … I hope the public really appreciates it and that they come out and see it when we’re done.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.

Click here to view the audio slideshow of the DC-3 restoration project.