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Maid in the Shade

By Dick Smith
4/2/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

After nearly three decades of restoration work, a B-25 World War II veteran will soon take to the air once again.

Nobody takes on a major aircraft restoration project with the notion it will be quick or easy. But for the workers involved in returning a North American B-25J to flightworthy status for the Commemorative Air Force’s Arizona Wing, it’s been a particularly long and difficult haul. Twenty-seven years of painstaking restoration work is approaching an end in Mesa, Arizona, as the B-25 Mitch – ell Maid in the Shade receives finishing touches and awaits inspection by the Federal Aviation Administration. Once the bomber’s airworthiness certificate is issued, the Arizona Wing’s Mitchell will join another World War II bomber, the Boeing B-17G Sentimental Journey, in the CAF’s warbird stable.

Maid in the Shade started life as 43-35972, built in Kansas City and delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces on June 9, 1944. Assigned to the Twelfth Air Force, 57th Bomb Wing, 319th Bomb Group, 437th Bomb Squadron, based at Serraggia Air Base on Corsica, it flew its first mission on November 4, 1944, against a railroad bridge at Piazzola, Italy. Fourteen more sorties followed, supporting ground forces in northeastern Italy. On December 31, 1944, the unit was ordered to stand down and prepare to transfer to the Pacific.

When the 319th Bomb Group changed over to the Douglas A-26 Invader and moved to Okinawa, however, 43-35972 returned to the United States, where it was assigned to transport and utility duties until 1958. Then, like many other warbirds, the Mitchell was relegated to storage at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. A year later it was put up for sale.

In January 1960, the National Metals Company, a smelter company in Phoenix, bought 43-35972 for scrap. At the same time, the B-25 was given a civilian registration, N9552Z. But the bomber escaped the scrap furnaces when it was sold to Dothan Aviation, an Alabama crop-dusting operation. Equipped with agricultural tanks and spray bars, the veteran Mitchell soldiered on for the next decade and a half.

In 1975 Dothan Aviation sold off several of its older aircraft, including the B-25. The bomber eventually ended up in the hands of three WWII buffs in Bloomington, Minn., who likely acquired it for spare parts for their flyable B-25. But N9552Z was in such bad condition at that point that they dubbed it I See a Problem.

In 1981, when the Minnesotans decided to donate the B-25 to the CAF, the Arizona Wing’s Jim Orton worked out an arrangement to have it assigned to Arizona. After the group obtained a ferrying permit, the Mitchell was flown from St. Paul to Mesa—a harrowing journey punctuated with frequent stops, since the engines were leaking and burning plenty of oil. They eventually made it to Arizona, where N9552Z was lodged in a rental hangar at Falcon Field. The B-25’s registration was later changed to N125AZ, reflecting its new home.

According to CAF newsletter editor Dennis Sturm, between 1981 and 1990 the aircraft was dismantled “down to the removal of almost every nut and bolt.” But little actual restoration was accomplished during that period, since most of the wing’s efforts and funds were devoted to renovation of the B-17 Sentimental Journey.

A further delay came when it appeared the B-25 might become part of a transaction with the U.S. Navy and a third party—an arrangement that could have resulted in CAF Headquarters at Midland, Texas, receiving its second Boeing B-29 Superfortress and the Arizona Wing gaining a Beech C-45 Expeditor in trade for the B-25. That swap was not completed as planned, although the C-45 was later donated to the Arizona Wing.

By 1984 work on the B-17 was complete, as was the rebuilding of the C-45 and a Grumman AF-2S Guardian. That meant the B-25 could at last be moved into the main restoration facility. When the Mitchell’s wings and empennage, which had been removed after the aircraft arrived, were checked for signs of metal deterioration, according to Peter Loguda, maintenance officer for the Arizona Wing, the team found “a lot of corrosion on the underside of the fuselage due to the aluminum being exposed to the spraying chemicals for many years.” All of the damaged metal has since been replaced.

In the fall of 1995 the B-25’s wings were reattached to the fuselage, and in November 1996 the refurbished twin tail section was reinstalled. Meanwhile the Wright R-2600-35 engines—removed years before—were being totally rebuilt.

“On May 29, 1999, the No. 1 engine was started, and it ran well,” explained Sturm. “However, the No. 2 would not start at that time.” A few months later both power plants could be fully run up, marking another milestone in the restoration process. The propellers had earlier been sent out for a complete reworking.

The aircraft’s nose section had to be totally rebuilt, a major project. When the CAF got hold of the bomber, the original bombardier’s glazing had been replaced with solid plating. “We had to build a complete new nose and bombardier’s position,” said Loguda.

Another big project was the removal of both wing fuel tanks. “The right tank was leaking,” Loguda explained, “and was repaired by a firm that specializes in this work.” When the left wing tank was found to be beyond repair, a new one was fabricated from a stronger, lighter material than that used on the original rubberized self-sealing tank.

There was also a recurring problem with retracting the landing gear. “Physically the gear was in good shape, with only a few hydraulic leaks,” Loguda said. “What we had to fix was the timing sequence of the gear extending and retracting and the doors opening and closing in proper order.”

With most of the mechanical and metal work complete, the exterior was cleaned and painted Air Force gray to protect the aluminum skin from corrosion. The engine cowl rings and the outer portion of the vertical tail sections then received a coat of cobalt blue trim. A white “18” was painted on both vertical tail sections, replicating the battle number the plane was assigned in Corsica during 1944.

Other than a few odds and ends, all that was left was to select a name for N125AZ. After most of the Arizona Wing members voted for Maid in the Shade, the B-25 was adorned with nose art depicting a young woman in a bikini lying under a palm tree, superimposed over an outline of Corsica. The name is inscribed below the bombardier’s window along with “1944 Serraggia, Corsica.” The Mitchell’s nose art was created by Todd Lawrence, who ended up spending more than 118 hours perched atop a stepladder, completing the painting.

Sturm said it’s difficult to determine how many people have been involved in the restoration effort over the course of the nearly three decades it has been in progress. “Some have moved on, others have died, while still more have joined in the project,” he noted. “All will be happy to see this plane fly after so many years, but no one will be as happy as some of our World War II members who actually served on B-25s.”

At press time, Maid in the Shade’s first flight is expected to take place in the spring of 2009. For an update, see azcaf.org.

 

Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here

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