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The Quest to Restore Clyde

MIAT Students Restore Classic B-52 Bomber for Yankee Air Museum

She’s 48 feet tall and dressed in camouflage. Her wingspan is 185 feet and she’s outfitted with eight engines. She has the capacity to carry 60,000 pounds of bombs—she was built to destroy. Her name is Clyde, she’s a Boeing B-52D Stratofortress, and she was placed in the hands of students from MIAT College of Technology who have been given the job to restore her to her original glory.

Airplane survives 600 missions but nearly succumbs to weather

It was December 1972. The Vietnam War was in its 17th year and on its third U.S. President. U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger returned from Paris defeated, after negotiations with North and South Vietnam ended in an impasse. In January, Congress would convene and cut off all funding for the war, which would give North Vietnam a victory by default. President Richard Nixon was convinced the U.S. could win the war, but he had limited time and resources. Feeling pressure, Nixon made an executive decision: to use force.

Operation Linebacker II was vicious. It was the largest bombing campaign in the Vietnam War, and the most powerful weapons in the U.S. air arsenal were front and center: B-52s. On December 18th, over 200 B-52s—including Clyde—rose to the sky from Anderson Air Force Base in Guam and U-Tapao Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. They showered over 5,200 tons of bombs along the 60-mile corridor between Hanoi and Haiphong, North Vietnam’s two largest cities. An operation that began in secret, it immediately drew protest from Americans who dubbed it the “Christmas Bombing”. Despite outrage from American citizens who considered the campaign inhumane, especially considering the holiday season, Nixon refused to relent. Bombs were showered for eleven days, until finally, North Vietnam agreed to resume peace talks. Kissinger returned to Paris on January 9th and negotiations were struck.

students restore Clyde
Students restore the wings

Clyde flew over 600 missions during the Vietnam War, and while many of her colleagues fell, she survived—only once getting a surface-to-air missile caught in her wing. After a tumultuous life fighting above the jungles and mountains of Vietnam, she rested at the Carswell Air Force Base in Texas. The Boeing jet took her final flight October 26, 1983, when she flew to Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti Michigan. There, she was dedicated to the aircrews who lost their lives in South East Asia during the war, and she retired as part of the Yankee Air Museum’s collection. Unfortunately, Michigan winters are unkind, and she was not built to sit idle and exposed. Portions of the jet were made of magnesium, and after sitting for over thirty years, had deteriorated. What was once a mighty player in the mass carpet-bombing of North Vietnam sat corroding on the tarmac at Willow Run Airport.

Yankee Air Museum chooses Clyde as Centerpiece

Yankee Air Museum loves having the B-52 in their collection; however, for years red tape kept them from modifying, or even repairing, the bomber. Eventually, it had fallen into serious disrepair. A recent change in early 2015 gave Yankee Air control over Clyde’s fate, and as they build their new museum, they plan to restore her and promoter her as the centerpiece of their collection. Even though she will never fly again, she will sit as a testament to the strength and power of the U.S. Air Force in her own specially designed showcase. It was time to finally repair Clyde.

When Yankee Air Museum approached MIAT College of Technology in early summer with a Winter 2015
deadline, the school immediately leapt at the challenge. MIAT is a nearby world-class technical college with an Aviation Maintenance Technology program and the students to take on the task. Beginning in mid-July, instructors Craig Vassel and Dave Howe took their day and afternoon Advanced Sheetmetal classes to Willow Run Airport and began the process, fixing the disrepair one wing at a time.

It’s July. Clyde sits alone on a patch of brown-tipped grass, unassuming and tucked away from the runway traffic. The paint on her camouflage top and black belly has slowly chipped away, weeds breaking through the ground and hugging her wheels. Scaffolding spans the length of the 185 foot wings, with ladders climbing upwards of ten feet to reach the top. Toolboxes, generators, and water bottles are scattered beneath her. The summer sun beats down on the aluminum, intensifying the already high temperatures. Dressed as coolly as they can, as many as 30 students at a time spend entire class periods dissecting—and then restoring—the historic plane.

MIAT Students learn by doing the restoration

The damage to the bomber is severe: there are large patches of deteriorated metal, spotted with holes, on each wing and several of the engine cowlings. After assessing her condition, the instructors decided the best approach was to completely remove and rebuild the exposed sections. Repair of this caliber is a long process, and something many Aviation Maintenance Technicians won’t see until they’ve been in the field for several years; but MIAT students get to learn and apply their skills on the fly, spending weeks completely immersed in the process as they painstakingly restore the airplane. “This is so hands-on,” said student Patrick Wroblewski, expressing his gratitude for the project. “When we get done, we’re going to have a lot more experience. You don’t learn this in books.”

After spending days with the B-52 carefully cutting and sanding away all the deteriorated skin on the wing tip and near the fuselage, the students learned the corrosion had infected deeper than the surface: the stringers, or supports underneath the skin of the wing were also ruined, so they cut those away too. Next, the students had to clean the wing cavity to prevent against any future corrosion, wiping out mud with paper towels and using a wet vac to suck out the remnants of birds’ nests. When the wings were cleaned and the rough edges sanded away, the students utilized their sheetmetal skills to craft new stringers.

Restore Clyde project
Break time on Clyde

They laid their newly cut stringers and moved on to the skin, measuring, cutting, and fitting the new surface of the wing. Using rivets and sealer, they attached the panels to the stringers. “The only real challenges we face are where to put the stringers, or whether or not to use partial or full sheets of metal.” Instructor Dave Howe explained. Challenges like those are preparation for the field, giving the students a chance to make big decisions about restoration before they even leave school. “They’re learning some techniques the FAA program doesn’t even teach,” added instructor Craig Vassel. “And I used to do this! I get excited to show them what I know.”

After weeks of hands-on labor, the first wing was fully repaired. Instructors Vassel and Howe’s next Advanced Sheetmetal class would work on the second wing. “Everyone gets a chance,” explained Howe. “When one class is over, a new class will come. And the school will be involved for a long time on the project,” he added, explaining how the corroded engine cowlings will be brought to the school to restore them.

Teamwork is the key to successful restoration

Student Michael Miller said the biggest lesson they’ve learned during the project is teamwork. “We all work a little bit better, and a little bit harder,” he explained, and instructor Dave Howe agreed, saying that “They’re good workers. It’s rewarding. They’re doing what they’re going to be doing in real life, the way they’ll do it in the field. And they’ll be able to come see this someday and say, ‘Hey, I worked on that. I fixed that.’”

In September, the second round of students arrived on site for the first time. “My first thoughts were about how awesome it is to be up here,” student Nick Yutzy recalled.  Student Zachary Albanice agreed, adding that “It’s not every day you get to tell someone you worked on a piece of history.” When the second round classes tackled the remaining wing, they focused primarily on three patches of damage: two near the wing tip and one near the wing root. Like the first classes, they broke themselves into teams and immediately got to work stripping away the damage and measuring, cutting, securing, and polishing the new sheetmetal.

The repair of Clyde is a precedent-setting project for Yankee Air Museum and MIAT; both Craig Vassel and Dave Howe hope their students showed the museum that MIAT students can continue to work as repairmen for Yankee Air Museum, all while gaining hands-on experience that will set them apart. And they have—Yankee Air Museum and MIAT are already working together to plan more future projects for MIAT students. “What they’re doing here is real, it’s realistic.” said Vassel. “They’re going to know all this history and their work will be in the museum, and it’s not every day you get to put your hands on a B-52.”

On the evening of October 6th, the students left students restore B52 bomberWillow Run for the last time. Now, the wing roots and tips are recrafted, and the sheetmetal is shiny and crisp. Clyde will endure the winter without any risk of water, snow, or dirt damaging her. Two of the corroded engine cowlings have been brought back to MIAT for sheetmetal classes to restore, starting in January 2016. When the cowlings are fixed, Yankee Air Museum will paint and prep the bomber, and in summer 2017, Clyde will make the final move from the Willow Run runway to her very own Yankee Air Museum showcase, where she will proudly be the centerpiece of their collection.

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Written by Emily Wallace

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