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All volunteers, the Weisbrod restoration crew works magic

The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo. — Peter Roper The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo.

March 12--When my brother Bob was just 13, he would build model airplanes so patiently and carefully that every wheel turned, every propeller spun and every decal was perfectly placed.

Me? I was just 5 and itching to get my fingers on his beautiful airplanes like a red-eyed mongoose in a roomful of snakes.

"Now, Petey," he would say as he gently painted a wing or tire. "This airplane won't really fly. You know that. Right?"

Maybe not for you, big brother.

Well. You know the rest. I threw it. It crashed. They all crashed. P-40 Tomahawks. P-51 Mustangs. Redstone rockets.

Ultimately, Bob took to hanging his models from his bedroom ceiling by fishing line, far beyond my reaching fingers.

Joe Musso knows all about that itch. He loves airplanes and now he restores the real thing for the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum. Armed with body putty, sheet metal and accurate historical photos, Musso and his crew of restoration junkies like bringing old airplanes back to life again.

No, the airplanes can't fly again. They just look like it.

"First time I came out to the museum, it was to judge a model airplane contest," said Musso, a former Pueblo County Sheriff's deputy. "Man, I just fell in love with the place."

That's easy to understand. The airplane collection at the Pueblo museum is astonishing with rare aircraft, from the World War II B-29 bomber "Peachy" to the sleek F-104 NASA test jet.

Just two years ago, Musso and his crew brought two legendary Soviet MiGs back from an Arizona airplane boneyard. They looked like those airplanes I'd thrown when I was 5 -- wrecked and in pieces.

No more. Now that MiG 15 and its faster brother, a MiG 17, are gems in the museum's collection. Rare enemy warplanes that gleam with fresh paint, red stars and give museumgoers an extraordinary experience of being able to touch -- very gently, of course -- but touch aviation history.

"I think of it as building life-size models," grinned Bill Grant, one of Musso's volunteer craftsmen. Grant's connection to airplanes is hereditary. His father was a B-24 ball-turret gunner in World War II. "I worked for Bell Helicopters for a few years, too," he conceded.

Restoring airplanes requires tons of research.

"We put in about 170 hours of research on every plane," Musso said. He means finding photographs, plans, whatever is available so that an airplane is restored to authentic markings, paint schemes and insignia.

Bob Dyleski has been working at the museum for 20 years. A former Marine infantryman, he became part of the restoration crew because he likes the camaraderie. The group has got that get-it-done vibe to it. Plus power tools.

"I wasn't that much of an airplane guy, but I like hanging out with these guys," Dyleski said, only to get the expected barrage of good-natured flak.

"Too bad we don't feel the same about you," shot back Rick Sandidge, the only pilot in the group.

And being a pilot is actually a handicap in this crew.

"Pilots?" Musso said, rolling his eyes. "They think they know everything. We don't care what you've done. We're interested in what you can do in rebuilding a plane."

The small garage-like hangar where the crew does its work is about as disreputable- looking as the restorers themselves. It looks like a


very small bomb went off inside, one that just made the building bulge at every seam without actually knocking it down.

"Yeah. Sometimes we wear ponchos in here because the rain just comes through the ceiling," Dyleski grinned. They all laughed. Yeah, nothing says teamwork like being miserable together.

Rick Sargent is a former Air Force computer guy. Not that there is much high-tech work involved in sanding off old paint, replacing metal panels, shaping body putty and all the other sweaty work that goes into making an old airframe look new.

Oh, and he can weld. Does the crew do much weldin g in rebuilding planes?

"No. But we make our own push bars," Musso laughed, pointing to the long metal pole that is typically attached to an airplane's front wheel so it can be pushed around by a truck.

In this case, the push bar was attached to an F-15 Fighting Eagle. The twin-tailed jet fighter was recently brought up from Arizona, with a companion F-16. They are the next two aircraft that will be spruced up into display condition.

Painted on a side panel of the F-15 is a small Iraqi flag, meaning the U.S. jet shot down an enemy plane in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. That Iraqi flag will be carefully protected as the restoration crew takes off all the other old markings and brings the F-15 back into its Desert Storm appearance.

Musso has a dream of turning the Pueblo museum into the premier Cold War aircraft museum in the Western U.S. He's been pairing aircraft together now for some time, the way they would have battled each other over Korea, or Vietnam or in the Middle East.

That MiG 15? The first Soviet fighter jet can be paired with the U.S. F-80 Shooting Star, the first American jet fighter. They tangled over Korea.

The MiG 17 can be displayed with the F-86 Sabre Jet, a pairing that also collided over Korea, but American fighter pilots also fought MiG 17s over Vietnam. So the museum can add its F-100 Super Sabre to that group, a Vietnam workhorse.

Now, with an F-15 in hand, the restoration crew has its sights set on a MiG 23 that is sitting down in Arizona, waiting to be burnished back to life. Those were the Iraqi jets that were quickly destroyed by U.S. fighters in Desert Storm.

"We want the F-15 finished by June 2," Musso said, because that's the date of the annual Pueblo air festival at the airport.

If that sounds like a rush job, the crew is used to it. When the museum staff was getting ready to erect the second big blue hangar, Musso's crew got eight aircraft spruced up in just nine months, including an historic CH 34 Navy helicopter -- the actual chopper that plucked Astronaut Alan Shepherd, the first American launched into space, out of the ocean on May 5, 1961.

The museum crew restored that Navy chopper to what it looked like that day when it played its role in aviation history.

"We're lucky to have it," Musso said, but the reverse is also true.

Musso's bunch are all unpaid volunteers. They aren't specialists. They aren't museum technicians. They're guys who like to sand, paint and solve problems. But their work is appreciated.

Not long ago, the museum got a letter from the National Museum of U.S. Air Force in Ohio praising their work in caring for old airplanes put in their care.

"That's about as good as it gets," Musso said.


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