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Artisan: Rebuilding WWII vintage airplanes

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio

World War II vintage planes are big attractions at air shows across the nation, but keeping them in the air means repairs and new parts.

That’s where Dave Groh comes in. He operates Yesteryear Aviation Incorporated near Mason, Michigan.

He rebuilds and makes parts for planes that were used to train pilots. He’s got one himself. Their mostly wood and canvas bi-planes.

Why rebuild WWII trainers?

“Because we love aviation,” he chuckled, adding, “and we like World War II aircraft in particular.”

Groh says he’s owned some of these Boeing Stearman bi-planes.   He had to learn to rebuild them. Then other people wanted his help.

The number of people who know these training planes is shrinking. A lot of the craftsmen were WWII veterans. There are a lot fewer of those guys still around.

Groh pretty much does it all. He rebuilds the intricate wood and canvas wings, he manufactures parts, he even rebuilds the engines. A lot of those engines just happen to be Michigan made products.

The old Boeing Stearman engine was made by Continental out of Muskegon. The steel forgings throughout the bi-plane were made by Atlas Drop Forge in Lansing.

“A lot of the stuff was done here in this state. This airplane was built at the (Boeing) Wichita plant,” Groh explained.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Dave Groh with a photo of his plane. The photo rests on a wing's wood skeleton.

There are about 2000 of these bi-planes still around. Groh says that many planes combined with so few people still around who can do the work ends up keeping his shop busy.

“We manufacture a lot of parts under FAA approval for these airplanes,” Groh said. He makes about 95 parts for the bi-plane now and he needs to add to the list of parts he can produce.

They also repair aluminum clad AT6 advanced trainers.

Grant Dowell with Yesteryear Aviation was busy working on a wing after the plane had a mishap.

“It went off the runway and ended up in a ditch and smacked the wing. It ended up doing some damage to the main spar here and some stringers,” Dowell said.

Hundreds of rivets have to be drilled out to remove the aircraft’s metal skin. Then structural repairs or replacements are made.  After that, Dowell will rivet it all back together again,  making a 75 year old airplane look like it just came off the factory floor.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Grant Dowell working on the wing of an AT6 advanced trainer.

Both Dowell and Dave Groh are pilots. Groh said there was a point he had to make a decision, fly for one of the airlines or rebuild these WWII vintage planes.

“I would have had a better paycheck in the end, but I don’t think I would have been as happy as working here. Plus, I get a lot of family time. Money isn’t everything,” Groh said, smiling.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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