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WWII-era plane restored for 75th anniversary

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

For more than a decade, a derelict blue and white DC-3 sat parked on the edge of the tarmac at Covington Municipal Airport, slowly losing its battle with the elements, while providing a home for uncounted wasps.

As of two weeks ago, it's no longer there thanks to the efforts of Clive Edwards, one of the three brothers of Edwards Brothers Aviation in London.

Late last year, Edwards considered restoring a DC-3 and flying it to Oshkosh, Wis., for the 75th anniversary celebration of the venerable aircraft at AirVenture, a weeklong fly-in by the Experimental Aircraft Association.

With financial backing from a friend, he began a search for a suitable DC-3 early this year, locating about half a dozen. He inspected the aircraft at Covington first and immediately decided it was "the one."

So began the odyssey that brought Edwards to Covington to "rehabilitate," he said, the plane that had been deteriorating on the tarmac since 1999. Though it looked weathered, the aircraft remained in great shape structurally, with no corrosion evident, said Edwards, who has worked on the restoration of many aircraft for 32 years, including 35 different DC-3s.

Built in 1942 as a C-47, the military version, the aircraft had particular significance to Edwards and its London-based owner, James Lyle, because the U.S. Army Air Forces' 8th Air Force flew the plane during WWII. The plane towed gliders across the English Channel for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The military olive drab paint scheme remains visible on the fuselage under the fairings.

After the war, it was converted to a DC-3 and found its way to Covington in 1998, one of four DC-3s that belonged to Dodson Air Service. Dodson used the plane in its air cargo operation, and one of its more unusual missions was hauling live chickens to Honduras. It soon developed mechanical problems with the engines and, due to lack of money for repairs, ended up abandoned on the tarmac.

When Edwards began the restoration project last spring, he first had to overcome an unanticipated obstacle -- getting a clear title to the plane. After much time and significant lawyer fees, Edwards finally obtained the title and on May 29 he towed the DC-3 from the weeds and began work with Gordon Gray, his apprentice.

The two worked 14 or more hours a day, seven days a week making the plane operational. They received much support from the aviation community, including extensive hands-on help from people like Richard Helton, a Newton County flight instructor, who was rewarded with a surprise trip to Oshkosh on the DC-3.

Helton said he started volunteering his time on the DC-3 project just out of curiosity.

"It seemed like an impossible task, considering what the airplane looked like," he said. "It kind of evolved. It got to be a mission, an obsession. You really wanted to see the thing fly."

Helton said he spent most of his time flying to local airports in Peachtree City and Griffin to pick up parts for the plane. For five weeks, seven days a week, Helton worked side-by-side with Edwards.

"Just being around him you could tell he was committed to it and really wanted to see it fly," said Helton.

In mid-July, additional help arrived from the United Kingdom as John Dodd, chief pilot; Dave Cockburn, and Liz Higgins joined the restoration effort. Eric Zipkin, president of Tradewind Aviation in Connecticut and a friend of the plane's owner, along with Phillip Lowe, Airworthiness Surveyor in the United Kingdom, also provided support.

Despite the oppressive Georgia heat, the team managed to ready the plane for a test flight from Covington Municipal Airport on July 24, just eight weeks after the start of the salvage effort. The test flight revealed a problem, so the plane landed back at Covington Municipal as soon as possible.

A tear-down inspection revealed metal shavings throughout the left 14-cylinder radial engine, indicating a serious malfunction. The engine was pulled and replaced with a new one a few days later.

Finally, on July 27 after a successful test of the new engine, the DC-3 headed off to Oshkosh, Wis., and landed safely at AirVenture 2010.

The plane won the People's Choice Award at AirVenture, most likely because of its transformation from a disassembled non-operational aircraft to a functional machine within a period of eight weeks, said Helton.

In the future, the plane will be restored to its military configuration with the D-Day paint scheme and returned to England.