By Andrew H. Malcolm, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer:
Manny Ornelas’ list of undone “honey do” chores is growing steadily at home. Dick Van Rennes finds himself painting helicopter rivets in his dreams. And Rudy Lerma is so busy he has had to postpone further repairs on his antique car. It’s all the result of a little-noticed aircraft restoration underway at Riverside’s March Field Air Museum.
In a hangar overlooking the military airfield and dozens of airplane relics, a band of dedicated volunteers is poring over the hulk of a historic helicopter that ferried four U.S. presidents and scores of dignitaries during the 1960s and ’70s.
“This may be the most photographed helicopter in history,” said Gene Boyer, a retired Army colonel who flew the craft on hundreds of trips, including those to Egyptian pyramids, St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City and the Statue of Liberty. It also carried Richard Nixon from the White House after his resignation as president.
The 77-year-old Boyer’s sense of history and affection for this particular VH-3A Sea King has made him the driving force behind the work that will see the restored helicopter arrive this winter as a permanent exhibit at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda.
That’s a long way from a parking lot in Rhode Island where the helicopter sat, wrapped in plastic, for nearly 20 years awaiting restoration interest and funds — or scrapping. Fearing the worst, Boyer had spent many months tracking down the aircraft, which from 1960 to 1976 carried Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford before spending a decade as a static training tool for Secret Service agents.
“It was a good piece of equipment,” said Boyer, adding that all aspects of the restoration have been covered by volunteers and donated services. “It deserves preservation.”
Boyer estimates that he piloted the helicopter on 600 flights involving a president and many more hauling nearly 30 visiting heads of state. Boyer took Nixon and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the helicopter and landed next to pyramids. He dropped the president off at the Statue of Liberty and was the first helicopter pilot to land in St. Peter’s Square for Nixon’s visit with the pope.
“I didn’t get a practice run for that one,” Boyer said, “but I scouted the area on the ground.”
Boyer recalled taking Nixon from San Clemente to an NBC Studios parking lot in Burbank for the televised revelation of the administration’s diplomatic opening with China.
“For years,” Boyer said, “I was afraid that chopper had been scrapped.”
Using an extensive network of military friends and government contacts, Boyer found the helicopter, a willing recipient in the Nixon library, an empty Air Force cargo jet en route to California and an eager work crew including Lerma, who heads restoration work for the March Field museum. The sprawling private museum has on display nearly six dozen military aircraft, including a Curtiss biplane, a Soviet MiG-21, a B-52 bomber and an SR-71 spy plane. Visitors can watch the restoration work and even rent a ground-bound C-141 cargo plane for parties.
“We restore ’em right,” Ornelas said. “We don’t Mickey Mouse anything.”
With the exception of Lerma, a former Air Force security specialist, the restorers are volunteers, aviation buffs who think it’s fun to make missing metal parts from scratch or mix paint colors for days to obtain perfect matches. They make the challenging restoration work sound addictive.
“When I retired as an electrician,” Ornelas said, “I thought I’d come by here one day a week for something to do. But I got fascinated by these old planes and the history around them, and now I’m here more than I’m home.”
Van Rennes estimated that he had volunteered thousands of hours over the years. Once the old presidential helicopter’s olive green paint was matched, he spent days touching up the craft’s collar-button-sized metal rivets, one at a time.
“It’s hard work,” said Lerma, “but it’s fun. Like building a model airplane — only a lot larger.”
And it also has its challenges: A lot of parts are missing, including the engine, transmission, massive rotor blades and the entire tail section, not to mention both hatch doors and maybe a third of the cockpit gauges.
No problem. Lerma’s got a line on the missing pieces from an Arizona boneyard of junked military planes. They could be here any day. Has Lerma ever installed, say, the transmission on a sophisticated helicopter with no owner’s manual? “Uh, no, not really,” he admitted. “But it’s pretty simple. We’ll figure it out.”
Details being paramount in restoration, Lerma’s crew will erase every speck of rust and use old news photos to copy the helicopter’s presidential paint job. An engineer from Sikorsky, the craft’s maker, will check the details.
Lerma’s volunteers will fill the tires with rubber to forestall flats and plug every opening to keep birds from moving in. And they’ll polish every surface, including the windows, one of which has stubbornly refused Van Rennes’ muttered invitations to open.
Nothing is unimportant on this job. “It’s history,” said Lerma, “and we were chosen to do it.” He eagerly awaits the day he can take his two grandchildren, Corbin and Nickolas, to see the aircraft on display. “And I’ll tell them, ‘You know, I worked on that helicopter.’ “
As for the volunteers, they get similar satisfaction every time they see a visitor peering at one of their finished exhibits. Is there any other reward for the endless hours of unpaid restoration? Well, every Tuesday and Thursday, Rudy Lerma brings in a big batch of doughnuts, first come first served.