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Bent-Wing Phoenix

By Dick Smith
8/24/2017 • Aviation History Magazine

Jim Tobul’s prize-winning F4U Corsair Korean War Veteran has beat the odds—twice.

All too few warbirds are rescued from the scrap heap, carefully restored and returned to the air. Even fewer get rebuilt a second time after a crash. Jim  Tobul’s Vought F4U-4 Corsair, rising like the legendary phoenix from a tragic accident that took his father’s life, exemplifies that kind of dedicated effort.

Tobul’s airplane, Bu. No. 97143, was built too late for World War II service, rolling out of the Vought Aircraft factory in Stratford, Conn., in August 1945. The U.S. Navy officially accepted the aircraft that November. With the war in the Pacific over, Corsairs, like most propeller-driven fighters, took a back seat to the Navy’s new jets, and were primarily relegated to reserve units.

When the Korean War broke out, however, the “bent-wing birds” were once again in demand, thanks to their ability to provide close air support for United Nations forces. From June through October 1951, No. 97143 was assigned to Naval Reserve Squadron VF-884 aboard the aircraft carrier Boxer. The “Bitter Birds” from Olathe, Kan., as they were known, flew 1,519 missions, dropped 750,000 pounds of bombs, fired 3,800 rockets and expended nearly 1½ million rounds of ammunition on enemy positions. The patches on their flight jackets included a caricature of a Kansas Jayhawk, symbolic of the squadron’s fighting tradition.

In December 1951, the F4U-4 was transferred to Valley Forge and assigned to Naval Reserve Squadron VF-653, from Akron, Ohio. VF-653 Corsairs carried a distinctive marking on the fuselage—reflected in squadron members’ patches—depicting a dragon holding a shield with a golden triangle in the upper left corner, a reference to Pittsburgh, Pa., home to many of the pilots. The shield also carried a diagonal checkerboard stripe in honor of the squadron’s commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Cook Cleland, who had won the Cleveland National Air Races in 1947 and 1949 flying modified Goodyear F2G Corsairs. Among the members of VF-653 who flew 97143 was now retired Rear Adm. J.R. Rohleder, the last surviving pilot of that squadron.

In 1956, with F4U-4s all but obsolete, 97143 was sold to the Honduran air force. It was subsequently used as a parts plane, cannibalized to keep other Corsairs airworthy until 1969. The airframe was returned to the United States in 1977, when an American Airlines pilot bought what was left of it and had it transported to Homestead, Fla., where the remains languished until 1981.

Jim Tobul and his father, Joseph, had begun searching for a Corsair to restore that year. Rejecting five airframes that had serious flaws or had been poorly restored, they saw 97143 as the best prospect, “since we could see all the internals and all the pieces were original.” Jim trucked the airplane home to Pittsburgh, beginning what would be a decade-long restoration. His father, aided by a cadre of friends and a former crew chief of 97143, Lenny DeFranco, soon knew they had embarked on a daunting project. Many of the airframe parts had to be outsourced or machined from Vought’s original plans. But they persevered, and on December 8, 1991, the fully restored F4U-4— dubbed Korean War Hero—took to the skies for its first flight over Pittsburgh, in a salute to the men from the area who had flown Corsairs during the war. That same year the Tobuls moved their manufacturing business to Bamberg, S.C., where the Corsair would be based with several other restored military planes.

Joseph, a retired Marine who had piloted a variety of aircraft, and Jim both flew the Corsair, along with other warbirds, at airshows during the ensuing decade. Among the events the Tobuls attended annually was the Celebrate Freedom Air Show at Owens Field in Columbia, S.C. At one point the elder Tobul, aware that a veterans hospital was located near the airfield, gained permission to do a private airshow for patients there who could not leave the facility. As years passed, other performers joined in until nearly a dozen warbirds were performing over the William Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center each year. They would form up over the airfield, then make several low and slow passes over the hospital’s front lawn—always “a huge hit with the crowd,” according to Jim.

On November 10, 2002, Joe was in the Corsair, joining up with 10 other pilots as they prepared to do a fly-by of the hospital, when an engine failure and fire caused him to crash into a grove of trees. “We were in formation, so he was low and slow,” Jim recalled. “There was not much else he could do due to his airspeed. So pretty much he was going down.” Joe was killed in the crash.

His son gathered up all the pieces and stored them in a hangar.“It took me about six years until I could grasp the situation,” Jim said, “and then I decided to rebuild the aircraft.” He spent considerable time over the next couple of years acquiring parts and working on the Corsair. Then one day an old friend, Bill Klaers of Westpac Restoration in Colorado Springs, Colo., called him and said, “Well Jim, I hear you’re doing good on the Corsair.” When Jim agreed, Klaers continued, “By the sound of it, it will take you about eight years to finish the airplane—you’ll be 60-what then?” Tobul could see where this was going. Klaers insisted that Jim pack up all the Corsair parts and ship them to him, promising he’d have the aircraft flying in two years.

Klaers was true to his word. On March 7, 2011, Tobul flew the re-restored Corsair back to South Carolina, where his mother and friends greeted him at Bamberg airport. “There were a lot of tears that day,” Jim remembered. “That first flight back to South Carolina was very emotional. It was very emotional just seeing the aircraft again, as it was painted in the exact same way it appeared before the crash.”

Tobul continues to fly the Corsair to shows around the country. This past summer he took it to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisc., where he won the Best Fighter trophy and— along with Westpac’s Bill Klaers—the Silver Wrench award. Not long before that, Tobul and his Corsair took home the Grand Champion award from the Sun ’n Fun Air Show in Lakeland, Fla.

Jim Tobul and his F4U should both be regarded as champions: Tobul for the courage and strength he exhibited in restoring the aircraft after his father’s death, and the aircraft itself for its sterling service in the Korean War, during which it logged more than 200 combat missions. For more on the Corsair, visit koreanwarhero.com.

 

Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.

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