Volunteer plays key role in restoration of aircraft

June 19, 2013 

This story is not just about a plane at the Museum of Aviation, it is also about the guy who works on this plane at the museum. The aircraft is the Vultee BT-13B “Valiant.” The man’s name is Bob Denison.

First, let me tell you about the BT-13. BT, by the way, stands for basic trainer. This plane was used in World War II to train pilots. Basic training was the second step in becoming fully certified to fly. There were training bases all over the country. In fact, Cochran Field, which was down the road where Middle Georgia Regional Airport is today, was one of these bases. At the museum we have displayed the plane in the Tuskegee Airmen exhibit because the BT-13 was a plane on which they trained.

The BT-13 was a great improvement over the planes that the pilots were using in their primary training. The basic trainers had radios and interphone, enclosed canopy, adjustable propeller, a full set of blind-flying instruments and an adjustable propeller. It had a more powerful engine. With these improvements the students could learn about flying in formation, radio communication and how to do maneuvers. The pilots learned to fly in all types of weather and also at night.

By the way, the students learned all of this in about nine or 10 weeks. It is amazing what our pilots accomplished during WWII. Knowing that many of them started with a BT-13 makes the plane even more special as a part of our collection.

The BT-13 was called the “Valiant,” but the pilots called it “Vibrator” because it shook quite a bit.

The aircraft we have did not have a long career in the military. It went into service in February 1944 and was declared surplus in September 1945. All the BT-13s were disposed of at the end of the war by the government as they were no longer needed. Our BT-13 fortunately had civilian owners until it came to us in 1989.

That brings me to Bob Denison. Bob is a “restoration volunteer.” There are people from all over the country who will come to the museum to help out in restoring planes in our collection. Budget restraints have limited the museum in the number of people we have to actually work on restoration. It is such an important part of what the museum does to keep planes in good condition.

Bob hails from Crossville, Tenn., and is retired military. He and his wife bring their RV down to Warner Robins in the spring and fall. They stay for a couple of months, so Bob can help out at the museum in any way he can. The BT-13 is one of his main projects.

Bob was an aircraft mechanic and flight engineer for 20 years. He was in Vietnam and was the line chief for the Caribou. He also worked on the C-54, C-124, C-47, the B-29 and others. Bob knows his planes.

So how did Bob find his way to the Museum of Aviation? He met another volunteer in Florida who said the museum needed help restoring planes. He thought that would be a good use of his time. So, Bob came up and volunteered, and we are sure glad he did.

Bob actually will work on any plane, but it seems the BT-13 has been his “baby.” He loves to work on anything mechanical. Bob has been working on the basic trainer for a long time now. It is about 85 percent complete. The hardest part has been working in the belly of the plane and getting all the wires and gears connected, Bob said. The plane was just a shell when he started.

When in Tennessee, Bob works on cars. Bob goes to major car shows and has a collection of cars himself. His favorite is the 1953 Buick Roadmaster convertible. He had one when he was younger and loved the car. Right now he is working on a ‘33 Chevy, ’41 Pontiac and an ’86 Century Gran Sport Buick.

Bob loves what he does, whether it is a plane or a car. We at the Museum of Aviation are grateful that someone such as Bob Denison is willing to take his love of all things mechanical and apply it to a great plane such as the BT-13.

Marilyn N. Windham, of Fort Valley, is a volunteer at the Museum of Aviation. Contact her at mnwindham@aol.com.

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