"I never said half the things I said."

- Yogi Berra

 

Something magical happens inside the Historic Aviation Memorial Museum's restoration hangar several times a week when a handful of volunteers come together to revive a piece of aviation history.

The hangar on the east edge of Tyler Pounds Regional Airport hums with the chatter of air compressors, the whine of hand-held pneumatic sanders and the tap-tap of air-driven rivet guns.

Restoration crewmembers clamber onto the wings, roll under the fuselage or maneuver on the man-lift above the tail section patching, repairing and polishing the aluminum skin of a Cold War jet.

An F9F "Cougar" jet fighter, the first of America's swept-wing jets, is the crew's current labor of love.

It has been a slow-moving work in progress. The goal: make it beautiful again, nice enough to welcome visitors from atop a pole at the museum's entrance on Airport Drive off Texas Highway 64.

The Navy Cougar was a corroded wreck when HAMM volunteers - perhaps a bit overly optimistic - decided to rescue it from a South Texas scrap heap. Wrecking crews had hacked off its wings with blowtorches, and forklift drivers had punched jagged holes in the fuselage as they pushed the corroded aluminum frame into a pile for recycling.

When the aluminum carcass arrived back in Tyler, some were skeptical, estimating it would take years to restore. It was too beat up, too far gone, they said. But the optimists won out, and the painfully slow process of resuscitation began.

Today, years later, the wings have been re-engineered and attached, the largest rips and gouges have been re-plated with sheets of aluminum, smaller imperfections have been patched, loose panels have been riveted in place, corroded sections have been rebuilt, old paint has been removed, the aluminum skin is beginning to shine … and even the skeptics are beginning to believe.

"It looks like it could fly again," says Lou Thomas, HAMM president. And it does. But, of course, it won't. None of the planes on display at HAMM will ever take to the air again. With engines removed, they are static displays - bound to the ground but proud reminders of their airborne heritage.

While it is often difficult to trace the history of a specific piece of military equipment, the Cougar is somewhat unique. Because of a single color photo shot by a Navy photographer, we know what it looked like when it was on active duty with Fighter Squadron 112 (VF 112) more than 60 years ago. That photo guides the efforts of the restoration crew.

I suppose it's not for everyone - spending your Wednesdays and Saturdays in an aircraft hangar - scraping, sanding and polishing; getting to know new friends - Nip, John, J.T., Bob, Mary Jane, Tim, Chip and Jim; wolfing down a fast-food burger; then climbing back on that wing to buff down a patch or polish the rust off a row of rivets.

You have to enjoy working up a sweat on hot summer days, getting grit in your eyes despite goggles, plugging your ears for safety, breathing through a dust mask and nursing aches in muscles seldom challenged during years of office work. But, for me, golf makes even less sense.

I'm enjoying going in a new direction, working new muscles and polishing new skills. It's hard to describe the sense of accomplishment at the end of each work shift. There are no paychecks, no time clocks, no deadlines … just volunteers enjoying each other's company and sharing a common love of aviation.

Across the runway, inside the Historic Aviation Memorial Museum, another group of dedicated volunteers greets visitors, guiding them through its wealth of aviation treasures and introducing them to the 14 restored planes and helicopters on the ramp outside. Their joy comes from sharing their love of aviation - from Civil War balloonists to space travel, from dirigibles to helicopter gunships, from bi-planes to commercial jetliners.

But in the restoration hangar, a workspace seldom seen by visitors, amid clattering air compressors, whining sanders and rattling rivet guns, a tiny band of volunteers toils in the shadows.

Their enjoyment comes from hard work, the company of good friends and the challenge of bringing a pile of aluminum (scrap with potential) back to life.

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The Historic Aviation Memorial Museum, 150 Airport Drive, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. It houses an amazing collection of aviation memorabilia and 14 restored aircraft. A full story on HAMM appears in the November-December edition of IN Magazine, which is in racks now. For information about membership, group tours or to volunteer, drop by the museum or call 903-526-1945.

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Dave Berry is the retired editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His Focal Point column runs every Wednesday in the My Generation section. Next Wednesday, Veterans Day, we'll remember a man who may be "Smith County's Most Decorated Soldier of World War II." One of 24 members of the 1st Infantry Division decorated by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower following their D-Day assault on Omaha Beach, he would not survive the war. But the story of this unheralded sergeant from Troup, recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts, deserves to be told.

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