Convair T-29A back on duty at the Strategic Air & Space Museum.
After nearly a quarter-century in retirement, the Strategic Air & Space Museum’s Convair (Consolidated Vultee) T-29A is once again ready for duty in its original role as a “flying classroom.” The U.S. Air Force bestowed that sobriquet on the T-29 because it was intended to serve as an in-flight training aircraft for navigators, bombardiers and radio operators in the 1950s and ’60s. The newly restored T-29 will serve as a 21st-century classroom for student, scout and civic groups visiting the museum, located west of Omaha at Ashland, Nebraska.
The military’s need for a replacement aircrew training plane became evident soon after the end of World War II, when the newly formed U.S. Air Force realized that North American B-25Js no longer fulfilled the requirements of a modern military force. In 1948 Consolidated Vultee Corporation secured a contract to build a military trainer based on the design of the company’s twin-engine Convair 240 passenger aircraft. The 240 was the first commercial transport built after WWII, and Convair had looked to it as a replacement for the aging Douglas DC-3 fleet.
The first T-29A took to the air on September 22, 1949, lifting off from the Convair plant at San Diego, Calif. The initial flight of the Convair Model 110, forerunner of the 240 passenger liner, had occurred 2l⁄2 years earlier on March 16, 1947. But the Model 110 was plagued with production problems and did not generate significant acceptance by the military or the airlines. In 1951 Convair introduced the CV-340, a redesigned version of the 240 that went on to great success.
The 1950s-vintage cabins of the T-29 were fitted out with 14 positions for students and their instructors. At each station was a map table, a LORAN (long-range navigation) scope, an altimeter and radio compass instruments. The T-29 was distinguished by four bubble-shaped astrodomes that enabled students to take sightings with a sextant.
The museum’s aircraft rolled out of the Convair factory in California on July 26, 1951, with the serial number 50-0190. A few days later it was flown to its first assignment with the 3535th Bombardier Training Wing at Mather Air Force Base, Calif. It was transferred to the 3605th Aircraft Observer Training Wing at Ellington Air Force Base, Texas, in May 1954. For the next 10 years, 50-0190 served in Europe, with the 86th Fighter Interceptor Wing in Germany, temporary duty in Newfoundland, and then Germany again.
Other European assignments included two years’ service with the 7030th Air Base Wing at Ramstein, Germany, from January 1958 to January 1960. That same year the T-29 was transferred to the 7101st Air Base Wing at Wiesbaden. In January 1963, the aircraft went back to Ramstein and the 7030th Combat Support Wing until it moved to the United States in 1966 and to the 3245th Air Force Base Group at Hanscom, Mass. The T-29 was transferred to the 156th Tactical Fighter Group at Muniz Air National Guard Base, at San Juan International Airport, Puerto Rico, in February 1972. It was officially struck off the Air Force inventory in July 1973 and flown to the former Strategic Air Command Museum in Bellevue, Neb.
T-29s were slightly smaller than the military’s C-131 transport version of the basic Convair 240 design. The C-131 was 5l⁄2 feet longer than the T-29 and stood nearly a foot and half taller at the tail; its wingspan was 91 feet 9 inches, compared with the 105-foot 4-inch wing of a C-131D Samaritan. It carried a flight crew of four and usually had a student-instructor complement of 23 in its 74-foot 8-inch fuselage.
The restoration started in September 2002 but was interrupted in October 2003 when the museum received a Rockwell International B-1A from the collection at the National Museum of the U.S.Air Force.“We had to stop all the work on the T-29, wrap it up in plastic and move it outside to make room for the B-1,” recalled Mark Hamilton, the museum’s restoration manager.
Hamilton recalled that the T-29’s interior and exterior surfaces were in terrible condition because for many years it had been displayed outdoors. He was especially concerned about the horizontal and vertical tail surfaces and the wing flaps, noting,“In some areas the corrosion was so bad that the metal had pulled away from the rivets.”
Restoration work started with soda-blasting the fuselage, then gutting and cleaning the interior. The cabin’s plywood flooring partially collapsed when one of the workers stepped on a weakened area. With its rotted fabric and insulation hanging in eerie shreds from the cabin and cockpit walls, the interior resembled a haunted house.
Years of dirt and debris had to be cleared away. The wooden map tables in the main cabin were in such bad condition that they could only be used as templates for replacements. New tables were fabricated in the wood shop, sanded and varnished to a high gloss. The frames of the seats at the map tables were removed, cleaned and repainted. New upholstery and cushions were constructed and then reinstalled. In the cockpit, the instrument panel and pilot and co-pilot seats were removed. The walls got a complete scrubbing, followed by several coats of interior green paint. All instruments were repainted and replaced, and the radio compartment behind the cockpit was also refurbished. Those areas are now displayed behind clear Lexan shields. The cockpit now appears as it would have on the day the aircraft rolled out of the Convair factory in 1951.
Back in the main cabin, areas around the window frames and the astrodomes were given special attention.As with the cockpit, the entire cabin was cleaned, primed and painted in military interior green. “We couldn’t find a suitable replacement for the fabric that covered the walls of the cabin, so we used a moldable plastic material much like that used in shower stalls,” explained Hamilton. When all the interior and exterior work was complete, new Lexan windows replaced the originals, which had cracked and yellowed over years in the scorching Nebraska sun.
While the interior work was going on, Al Morin, one of the museum volunteers and a World War II Navy and Air Force engine maintenance veteran, tackled the restoration of the two Pratt & Whitney R-2800-99W engines. After the propellers were removed, both engines were detached from the wings and mounted on special stands. “This is the first time we’ve done an ‘engine off’ restoration,” Hamilton said. Morin’s restoration is so impressive that the starboard engine will be displayed with the cowling covers open, to show the details of his work.
By October 2004, the B-1 project had been completed and additional work could resume on the T-29. The next step was to paint the “white cap” on the exterior of the main cabin and cockpit. The top of the fuselage was primed with epoxy primer and then painted with gloss white acrylic modified alkyd enamel. Then the fuselage’s underside was masked off and painted gloss gray. Between the two colors on the fuselage is an area of unpainted natural metal that surrounds the windows. This area and the wings were polished and buffed to a mirror finish.
A group of volunteers wired the interior to power the laptop computer terminals that have replaced its 1950s- and ’60s-era electronics. “These computers will be used by our students who attend our flight camp and education programs,” said Steve Prall, the museum’s deputy director. The T-29A has joined the museum’s Fairchild C-119 “Flying Boxcar,” which is now used as bunkhouse for school, scout and civic groups.
The newly refurbished aircraft is poised to play an important role, enhancing many of the museum’s education outreach programs in aviation, space exploration, math, science and engineering. After more than 12,000 man-hours of restoration and research, the museum’s T-29A flying classroom is once again on duty, educating new generations about the history and theories of flight in a way that today’s students are sure to enjoy.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.