Group has high-flying hopes for Corsair, and the ancient hangar it will call home
Published 7:37 pm, Sunday, January 6, 2013
The reason is the Corsair fighter plane that for three decades adorned the entrance to Sikorsky Memorial Airport might find the 84-year-old hangar as its next home.
The hopeful group of volunteers operating the Connecticut Air and Space Center, now busily restoring the Corsair and other aircraft, say that the Curtiss hangar, on the Main Street side of the airport, would make the perfect home for the center's planned aviation museum, which would include other displays on the state's contributions to powered flight.
The Curtiss hangar isn't much to look at. In fact, the city of Bridgeport, which owns the airport along with the old hangar, had expressed a desire to tear down the building several times over the years -- the wrecking ball stalled only by a failure to appropriate money for demolition.
But Andrew King, executive director of the center, says that the hangar only suffers from "gingerbread issues," and that aside from a new roof deck, the cracked brickwork and broken windows can be replaced without too much fuss.
"It's built on a steel frame, and an engineer told us that it's fine," King said, adding that the center will lease the hangar from the city for $1 per year.
More InformationChance Vought F4U Corsair Type: Single-seat carrier-based fighter-bomber Engine: Pratt & Whitney R-2800 18-cylinder Double Wasp. 2,250 to 2,800 hp, depending on configuration Wingspan: 40 ft., 11 3/4 in. Weight: 8,883 lbs. (empty) Speed: 395 mph in level flight Propeller: Hamilton Standard, 3- or 4-blade Production: 1940-1952, 5,559 produced, including those under license Kill ratio in WWII: 11:1
The hangar, sometimes called Hangar No. 2, was the home of the Curtiss Flying School from 1929 until about 1935. After that, it was run by the Bridgeport Flight Service.
There were about 16 Curtiss Flying Schools around the nation, but only one other Curtiss hangar survives, in South Carolina, and King said it might be demolished soon.
"The hangar is part of the golden age of aviation," he said.
The hangar's restoration will become the centerpiece of a revival of the eastern end of the airport, neglected since the mid-1960s, supporters say.
Money is always a problem, he said. The entire project could run more than $1 million, although the building will be made weather tight for much less. Supporters are hoping for corporate and private donations to carry much of the load.
"The steel doors are really special," said Mark Corvino, the chief fabricator for the Corsair project. "They run on tracks, and the entire span can be opened up if need be."
The hangar took a beating from Superstorm Sandy, but Corvino said that it has actually worked to the group's advantage. The parts of the roof that blew off will actually save some money because there's less of it to strip off now.
The F4U Corsair is still across the street in the former Avco Lycoming Army Engine Plant. The wings, engine and a few other parts are in Building 53. The fuselage and the rest of the plane is in another building in the Avco complex that was used as a tool shed and storage.
During World War II, the plant was used by the Chance Vought Division of United Aircraft, and it was there that 3,250 Corsairs were built. Hundreds were churned out every month at the height of the war.
The Corsair has a special place in the state's aviation history because it was almost entirely produced here.
Named after the notorious sailing ships of the Barbary pirates, the F4U Corsair was the first U.S. fighter to fly faster than 400 mph. Deliveries began in July 1942. Although designed as a carrier-based fighter, it usually was based on the tiny inlands of the Pacific Theater because it was a difficult plane to land on a carrier deck owing to poor forward visibility. For that reason, it was more commonly flown by Marine, as opposed to Navy pilots.
Despite this handicap, it quickly became the fighter most feared by the Japanese, with a claimed kill ratio of 11 to 1.
By the end of World War II, it was used also as a fighter-bomber, and was key to the victories at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Marshall Islands.
Nearly the entire plane was built in Connecticut -- the airframe, the massive Pratt & Whitney 18-cylinder R-2800 radial engine, even the propeller.
After World War II, the Corsair saw service in Korea, and the French used Corsairs extensively in the Indochina War. Production ceased in 1955.
The Air and Space Center also is restoring about a dozen other aircraft. Its latest undertaking is a Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane helicopter. It's an early variant, powered by a pair of P&W Twin Wasps, a newer version of the Corsair's power plant.
When the F4U was taken off its pedestal in 2008, those involved in the project said that they were eager to get the Corsair restored and back up on its concrete perch. But months of loving disassembly and restoration have made them question whether returning it to that spot, out in the salt air of the airport, would be wise. Hence, the need to restore the old hangar.
Today the Corsair is in pieces -- wings in one place, fuselage in another, engine in a third. It's covered in yellow primer. Soon it will be painted Navy blue, and it will eventually look like it did when Corsairs rolled out of the Chance Vought plant in the 1940s.
The group has had its setbacks, though. Bill Digney, of Fairfield, one of the older fabricators working on the Corsair, died on Nov. 18. And former state Sen. George "Doc" Gunther, a major supporter of the project, died in August.
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