For the month of October 2023 at the Fairchild Air Force Base Heritage Airpark, WA, passers by will see multiple teams of conservators restoring static aircraft on display. These dedicated individuals from across the country have been researching, removing paint and re-decaling the aircraft so that they’re historically correct and can be viewed in their original glory.
The leader of the overall restoration effort, Mr. Gordon Ponsford, is a nationally-recognized conservator who has restored projects for not only the U.S. military, but also commercial buildings, museums and the National Park Service.
Gordon Ponsford’s Journey
Ponsford’s origin story coincidentally begins at Fairchild AFB. “My father was stationed here [Fairchild AFB] and I was born here on Halloween,” Ponsford said. Ponsford, who speaks with a slight British accent, noted, “Mother’s English and right after I was born here, we went back to England at Mildenhall.”
His maternal grandfather owned a body shop and gas station in England, which was a family business. His mother, aunts and cousins worked in different parts of the company so Ponsford grew up within the business and was drawn to the body shop. When he was 12 years old, his father returned from service in the Korean War and the family needed to return to the U.S. Although he left England, the affinity for restoration and England was forever ingrained in him.
In high school, Ponsford worked at the Exotic Car Store in Atlanta and after school and on weekends he would do panel beating, in other words straightening out metal on cars.
“I was considered as good as the store’s expert because I’d already been doing it in England,” he said.
Ponsford was working on a DeLorean at the store and the car’s owner asked if he could do work on elevators. “Something metal on metal, doesn’t matter what the shape is. So I said ‘sure,’” he said.
He realized the business potential in Atlanta was greater for projects other than exotic cars so he started his own commercial building restoration company working with architectural metals. His business expanded to Washington, D.C., due to a romantic relationship and his business continued to grow.
While working on a railing project at Arlington National Cemetery, he was asked if he could restore a sculpture there. “I thought, again, metal is metal,” he said. Ponsford trained with a metal sculpture restoration expert in New York and learned how to color bronze sculptures. He then pivoted his business from commercial building to sculpture restoration and had a federal contract with Arlington to maintain their sculptures and stonework, like headstones, for 22 years.
Ponsford’s team stayed busy restoring sculptures and eventually landed a contract restoring armaments for the U.S. Army in South Carolina. Soon after he started bidding on contracts for military planes and historical artifact restoration.
Ponsford listed Martin Luther King’s bible restoration and Titanic artifacts preservation as top career achievements, yet the highlight of his career was restoring the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery.
“The honor of maintaining the military’s highest monument is a hell of an honor. I think there’s only been just a handful of people who have preserved it. It represents all the military, so that’s easily my number one [highlight],” he said.
Preserving the Past: Fairchild Heritage Airpark Restoration
Ponsford’s team has been performing restorative work at the Fairchild AFB Heritage Airpark for four years now. “Our first plane that we maintained here was the F-101 Voodoo,” he said. They followed with the F-105D Thunderchief and the C-47D Skytrain.
This month the team is restoring the park’s F-86E Sabre, T-33A Shooting Star, T-37B Tweet and the B-52D Stratofortress.
Ponsford noted that restoration of the F-86 is the trickiest of the bunch. “It has the most colors on it. There’s a total of eight colors on this thing,” he said. “So this one is taking the most time and detail. It will also look the prettiest.”
The Heritage Airpark B-52D Stratofortress, also known as 677, is special too but for a different reason. “That’s kind of unique because it’s a MiG killer,” Ponsford said. There have only been two B-52 MiG kills in military history, according to the Fairchild AFB Heritage Airpark pamphlet. 676 was the first and the other is on display at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO.
Before the team arrives at a site to start the hands-on work, in-depth research is done so that the final product is historically accurate, he said. This not only includes academic research, but also crowdsourcing historical photos from social media groups. This is especially true for planes that have had belly art painted over.
Ponsford said the team hopes to wrap up their work by the end of October but there’s a chance he’ll be at his birthplace on his birthday.
“I love it…I feel like it’s my second home,” he said. In years past he’s always just missed being there on his birthday because they try to complete the work when the weather is pleasant in early fall. “There’s a pride of being the one who takes care of these planes here…there’s the personal connection to it all.”
The F-86 Connection to the Washington Air National Guard
The Heritage Airpark F-86, which is an aircraft dedicated to the airmen of the Washington Air National Guard, was also an aircraft assigned to the WA ANG when airmen were stationed at nearby Geiger Airfield in the 1950s.
The Sabre’s history with the WA ANG was short-lived but historic in nature. According to the 141st Air Refueling Wing’s history page on their website, the WA ANG’s 116th Fighter Squadron, equipped with F-86D Sabres, was called to active duty as a result of the Korean Conflict.
But they went in the opposite direction to England, to bolster NATO forces.
“The move was the first time in aviation history a National Guard fighter squadron would cross over to the European Theater under its own power and only the second time such a move was ever attempted without air refueling,” according to the website. “The unit was released from active duty [sic] November 1952, but the aircraft remained in England. The unit returned to Geiger Field and was later reequipped.”
Preserving History for the Public
When it comes to preserving military aviation history and the crucial role that static displays, such as the F-86, play in educating the public, Ponsford emphasized that his foremost priority is honoring veterans through historically accurate aircraft restoration.
“You get veterans walking by here and they tell you their stories on these planes: sometimes a crew chief on one just like it or sometimes that particular plane… and they’re proud to see them restored properly,” he said. “Then you have the grandfathers bringing their children by, showing them what planes they flew on, and you see how proud they are when they’re talking to the kids and discussing the planes.”
Ponsford observed how sad it is to see static displays not taken care of and the resulting pride he takes in giving the gift of a historically accurate aircraft to veterans and the public.
“When they look good, they’re more inspiring,” he said. “That also means a lot to the servicemen, I know, because I hear from them.”
Ponsford said that he loves doing his conservation work and it’s his life passion, “After you get done painting the planes and start pulling up all your masking paper, it’s like unwrapping a present and there’s instantaneous gratification.”
The Heritage Airpark at Fairchild Air Force Base, prominently located between Mitchell and Elm Streets and Eaker Avenue, allows visitors to step back in time and pay respect to those who served. More information about the park and its aircraft are available at https://www.fairchild.af.mil/.
|Date Posted:||10.13.2023 12:40|
|Location:||FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, WA, US|
This work, A journey of restoration and connection at Fairchild Air Force Base, by Lt. Col. Alyson Teeter, identified by DVIDS, must comply with the restrictions shown on https://www.dvidshub.net/about/copyright.