Alberta Aviation Museum seeks new volunteers to restore rare WWII fighter jet

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It was an American-made aircraft that flew over Edmonton for use by the Soviet Union.

This is the flight path of the Bell P-39 Airacobra, a WWII fighter linked to the history of Blatchford Field.

The planes would pass through Edmonton en route to Alaska before finally making their way to the Eastern Front as part of the loan-lease program.

A group of volunteers from the Alberta Aviation Museum are now working to restore one of the unique story planes.

Lech Lebiedowski, project coordinator and professor of history at the University of Alberta, says the collection has its fair share of era bombers but has no fighter.

He says the P-39 is a missing link in the story the museum is trying to tell.

“This is important because it fills a gap in the historical interpretation of local history,” said Lebiedowski. “It connects us to the bigger picture.”

The Bell P-39 Airacobra would pass through Edmonton en route to the Soviet Union, a major stopping point on the Northwest Transit Route. (Submitted by Alberta Aviation Museum)

Thousands of planes passed through Blatchford Field as part of the northwest stage route to the Soviet Union.

Many Commonwealth crews were also trained at the airfield, which would later become Edmonton’s downtown airport, which closed in 2013.

The planes could also be repaired or modified by North West Industries in the north.

Volunteers at the Alberta Aviation Museum restore an American-made P-39 Airacobra, the first of its kind in their collection, and a chance to tell the story of Blatchford’s important role in WWII as a maintenance station during air travel to Europe. 1:35

The restoration is carried out in partnership with the Reynolds Heritage Preservation Foundation.

In addition to funding, the foundation also provides parts from the wreckage of a P-39 that crashed outside of Wetaskiwin, Alberta in the 1940s. The wreckage was recovered by Stan Reynolds , founder of the Reynolds-Alberta Museum.

Volunteers wanted

The work, however, is carried out entirely by volunteers from the museum. The project was launched in 2018 but stagnated during the pandemic as the aviation museum closed.

About half of its volunteers did not return, which represents a challenge to restart the restoration work.

“Our typical volunteers are retired aircraft enthusiasts, with extensive knowledge of aircraft and the work on them,” said Volunteer Coordinator Erica d’Haine.

A core of volunteers is essential to the museum’s operation and restoration work, she said.

“I would say they are the lifeblood of how this organization works.”

Gene Boettcher has been volunteering in the restoration project for over a year. (Peter Evans / CBC)

The museum is now recruiting for several positions, including technicians and restoration assistants.

Gene Boettcher signed off on the project after visiting the museum with his wife. He uses his professional experience to carry out sheet metal work on the P-39.

“To have the chance to work here after I retire, on some of these planes that I have always enjoyed, I find that I think I am very honored,” he said.

Boettcher said he had always been intrigued by WWII planes. A friend of his flew a Spitfire during the war, with the P-39 itself largely unused by the Western Allies.

“It’s a bit of a plane out of WWII, but it’s a bit iconic,” he said.

The project has a deadline of 2026 and Lebiedowski expects it will take about five more years before the restoration is complete.

“It’s a very difficult plane to work on because it’s made up of pretty much compound curves and aluminum, so it’s extremely laborious,” he said.

Major components such as the transmission, engine and weaponry are installed, but the fabrication of the missing panels, doors, interior furnishings and fenders is on the schedule.

Once ready for display, the P-39 will divide its time between the Alberta Aviation Museum and the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin.


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