Community Comment:

Evansville-built P-47 awaiting

invitation to fly home

  At various times in recent years, interest in obtaining and restoring an original P-47 airframe has been bandied about by businessmen, pilots and aviation enthusiasts around the area. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the idea has never really sparked the community's imagination or appealed to the right number of well-healed individuals in this community to actually make something fabulous happen.

Now, however, an opportunity presents itself which is rather tantalizing to consider for those who care about preserving some tangible, physical connection with the industrial past of this community.

A recent space ad in the aviation periodical "Trade a Plane" says it all a superbly restored P-47 a bubble canopy beauty originally built in Evansville is for sale through the arrangements of Courtesy Aircraft Sales of Rockford, IL.

Price (you really needed to ask, now didn't you?) more about that later.

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The story of these epic warplanes and the role this city played in producing them is largely forgotten but deserves to be retold. It reminds one of the enormous undertaking that full-scale wartime mobilization truly was and the profound can-do spirit demonstrated by area residents in all the various war production efforts.

James Morlock, in his book The Evansville Story, recounted that on March 22, 1942, Republic Aviation announced it would build a $16 million production facility to build new fighter aircraft on the city's near North Side near the airport. "On a very cloudy, murky afternoon, April 7, a ground-breaking ceremony was held with George A. Meyrer, general manager of Republic Aviation and Mayor William H. Dress handling the spade."

Immediately, work proceed at both the plant site and in terms of training the local work force where hundreds of potential workers were taught the various skills for their jobs in emergency War Training classes held at Evansville College. Professor Morlock remembered, production began nine months ahead of schedule, and on September 20:

"Amid a great roar of a powerful engine which drowned the applause and shouts of hundreds of workers and visitors an Evansville built P-47 Thunderbolt rolled down the runway and into the air at the Republic Aviation Corporation plant."

From then until the end of the war in September 1945, some 6,093 aircraft rolled from the Evansville production facilities, employing some 8,300 local residents.

So, just what was the deal with this new industrial creation that pushed the envelope of military aviation?

In the months leading up to national mobilization, many within the Air Materiel Command of the U.S. Army Air Force (AAF) recognized it had no single-engine pursuit aircraft which was state of the art in terms of performance and as a stable weapons platform for the air warfare which had been witnessed in the Spanish Civil War and in the Far East.

In the late 1930s, Republic Aviation Company of Farmingdale, Long Island, NY., tapped the, by then, veteran aircraft designer, Alexander Kartveli, a legal immigrant from Tblisi, Russia. Kartveli, who had already advanced aeronautical engineering for the Seversky Aircraft Co., designed the very fast, all aluminum P-35 pursuit fighter which won the Bendix Air Races in 1937.

The P-47, as a follow-on to his previous designs, boasted over 2,300 turbocharged horsepower, an operational ceiling of over 40,000 feet at speeds in excess of 400 mph. In battle, the P-47 could carry a vast array of weapons systems, with its eight .50 caliber machine guns in the wings and 2,500 pounds of bombs or rockets slung on hard points beneath them.

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The particular aircraft currently for sale began its life late in the war being assembled in early May, 1945 and immediately delivered to the 261st AAF fighter Combat Crew Training station of the 72nd Fighter wing in Abilene, Texas. After VJ Day on Aug. 15th, the plane was transferred several times to storage facilities in Independence, Kan., Tinker Air Force Base in Okla., Hensley Field in Dallas, Texas, and finally in late 1952 to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio. In October of that year, it was dropped from the Air Force inventory and transferred to the Peruvian Air Force (designated FAP 114) where it remained until 1969.


                                                                                                                                              Photo by Paul Bowen

At that time, a group of Warbird aviation enthusiasts went to Peru and brought back to the port of Brownsville, Texas, six restorable airframes which over the next several years were all restored to flying condition. By 1974, all six aircraft could frequently be seen flying in formation at air shows of the Confederate Air Force out of Harlingen, Texas. Then, in 1975, all six aircraft were sold to David Tallichet of Military Aircraft Restoration Corp. out of Chino, Calif., and for many years served as a static display in various locations until it was leased to Air Heritage, Inc. of Beaver Falls, PA. It was there in the early 1990s that restoration to airworthy condition commenced with both paid, professional restorers and volunteers providing over 3,500 hours of donated time. The aircraft was then sold to the current owner, Butch Schroeder, who continued the restoration, has hangered the plane in Danville, Ill.

First flown in 1997, the aircraft has made numerous visits to the Experimental Aviation Association's annual AirVenture air show where this writer first encountered the aircraft in 2002.

Lovingly restored to the color scheme flown by fighter ace Lt. Col. David Shilling of the 62nd squadron, Commanding Officer of the 56th Fighter Group late in the war. Shilling, who shot down 22.5 confirmed German aircraft during his wartime career, had his Thunderbolt painted in a green and gray camouflage scheme with a red cowling in front of the cockpit, identification letters LM S flanking the tail roundel and a yellow rudder. The ship was christened "Hairless Joe" after one of the characters in Al Capp's "Li'l Abner" comic strip several of whom were adopted by some of the pilots in his flying group as mascots. Originally, the wings of Shilling's aircraft were painted with black and white invasion stripes on both wings for D-Day, but in action several weeks after the invasion, the starboard wing of his plane was damaged, requiring a replacement. Therefore, the starboard wing on this "Hairless Joe" was not painted with invasion stripes to preserve historical accuracy.

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For a mere $1.950 million (a paltry sum compared with the size of some of the current bond issues being offered by units of local government) this legendary piece of aviation history could be brought home to the place where she began life, to commemorate the thousands of workers who produced her during the war.

According to Mark Clark, Courtesy has received several inquiries but the aircraft is still available for purchase.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could put together a successful fund-raising effort to buy this plane and exhibit it at an appropriate place where it could be viewed by the public and taken out for demonstration flights occasionally on special occasions?

Excuse me, did someone just wake me sorry, I must have been dreaming.

David Coker is an Evansville freelance writer.