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Fabricating

Midwest Aero Restorations is in a quest to restore rare Messerschmitt

By Lynn Stanley

November 2018 - Captain’s log, star date 8390. Paramount’s 1986 film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, finds the marooned crew of the USS Enterprise tasked with overhauling a captured Klingon Bird-of-Prey to reach Earth. When asked for a departure time, Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott replied, “Give me one more day, sir. Damage control is easy. Reading Klingon, that’s hard.”

“Sounds like my life right now,” laughs award-winning restoration artist and fabricator Mike Vadeboncoeur. To put context to his words, the owner of Midwest Aero Restorations Ltd., Danville, Illinois, takes us back to “Earth year” 2011 when he received a phone call from retired U.S. Navy F-18 pilot Bruce Winter.

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The Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-6 was pulled from its watery grave after 46 years (above) before making the journey from Moscow to Midwest Aero in Danville, Illinois. Photo: Victor Kulikov via Mark Sheppard

“Bruce said, ‘I hope you are sitting down, but what do you think about doing a Messerschmitt?’ I was a little shocked. I had no idea his next project would be a German aircraft,” recalls Vadeboncoeur.

In 2013, FFJournal chronicled Midwest Aero’s restoration and test flight of a World War II P-51 Mustang, the Messerschmitt’s nemesis. Midwest Aero remains dedicated to disassembling and rebuilding WW II-era warbirds with a toolbox chock full of ingenuity, technology and old world craftsmanship.

The company has also developed a broad network of contacts that often act as detectives to find or provide missing puzzle pieces for a project. To date, the company has restored eight P-51 mustangs to modern FAA flight standards and safety regulations, and renovated a P-51 fuselage.

Midwest Aero completed Winter’s P-51, Happy Jack’s Go Buggy, in 2008.

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Gary Day, left, Mike Vadeboncoeur, David Young, Steve Schultz and Ryan Keene comprises the crew that takes lifeless hulls like the ME 109 and returns them to FAA flight standards and safety regulations.

“We worked together on that project approximately four years,” says Vadeboncoeur. “If it were not for people like Bruce, these pieces of history would be lost. That’s especially true of the Messerschmitt.”

Rare bird

Historical accounts tell us why. Approximately 13,300 Rolls Royce Merlin-powered P-51 Mustangs were produced in the U.S. Following the war, some P-51s were part of early Korean War missions; others were employed by Nationalist forces in the Chinese Civil War; still others were flown by Israeli pilots in the 1956 Sinai invasion. The plane last appeared during the 1969 Soccer War with Honduras.

Many U.S. aviation standards used during WWII remain in place today along with a large number of standard parts shared by multiple aircraft.

Because the plane was so popular, “I can pretty much pick up the phone and get what I need for a P-51 project,” Vadeboncoeur says. Thousands of standard parts are still available in the surplus and private markets and a few companies are able to produce more complicated parts, he says.

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Mortal enemies during World War II, Bruce Winter’s restored American P-51 fighter faces off against the ME 109.

“That’s not the case with the Messerschmitt,” Vadeboncoeur continues. “Most of the aircraft and their engines were destroyed after the war. Restoring an ME 109 presents tremendous challenges due to the differences in German aviation parts and hardware, most of which are completely different and in some cases nonexistent. And there just aren’t any 109 parts typically found here in the U.S.” 

It was perhaps a dash of destiny that kept Winter’s Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-6 from meeting a similar fate. Built in 1943, the plane was part of a Luftwaffe fighter wing called Grunherz (green hearts). The Grunherz was the second highest scoring German fighter wing in history. In the winter of 1944, the ME Bf 109 G-6 was flying above Lake Swiblo on the Estonian-Russian border when it was struck by Russian anti-aircraft flak. Pilot Josef Groene managed to land the fighter on the lake’s ice with nothing more than a bent propeller before abandoning it. The ME Bf 109 G-6 slipped below the lake’s surface during the spring thaw and wasn’t seen again until 1990, when a group of Russian aircraft enthusiasts recovered the plane and transported it to Moscow.

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A newly built Messerschmitt 109 fuselage and a P-51D fuselage are displayed in the shop.

The ME Bf 109 G-6 changed hands several times, along with a growing number of spare parts and documentation that included blueprints, workshop manuals and part catalogues.

“Bruce and I traveled to a small town outside Munich in 2011 to look at the aircraft,” Vadeboncoeur says. “The ME Bf 109 G-6 was in the best condition for the price.” The rare find soon made its way to Midwest Aero Restorations via a large steel shipping container.

For posterity, the Midwest Aero crew “slapped the aircraft back together, jury rigging the cowl to get a photo of the plane in its original condition. It will never look that way again,” observes Vadeboncoeur. “Once you begin the restoration process, an aircraft loses a certain degree of authenticity.”

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Restoration

Once it arrived in Danville, Midwest Aero’s crew disassembled the Messerschmitt and removed components from the fuselage and wings. The fuselage was broken down into two smaller sections and sent back to Munich where two brothers, Hans and Hubert Hartmair, had the tooling and fixtures to rebuild the plane’s main body section.

“The airplane suffered from corrosion, the fuselage worse than the wings,” says Vadeboncoeur. “They did a fantastic job. Typical German craftsmanship. We worked closely with them. They had the contacts and the resources to help us complete that portion of the project.”

While waiting for the fuselage to be completed, Midwest Aero set about to build a fixture for the ME Bf 109 G-6’s wing rebuild in March 2015.

“When you take the skin off a wing, you can twist the skeleton,” explains Vadeboncoeur. “It’s very flexible. A fixture tool allows you to hold the wing in structural alignment while you reattach new skins with rivets.”

The plane’s wings suffered flak damage. “Because the pilot belly landed on the ice, one of the rear spars was still good,” Vadeboncoeur says. “On the other side, one of the main spars also survived. It was enough for us to re-engineer replacements.”

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Wing spars are built up using four angles. The spar starts as a flat, tapered, webbed sheet that has two angles on top and two angles on the bottom. “This meant we had to drill perpendicular to the face of the spar,” he says. “We didn’t dare try to do it by hand. So we conceived and built a stable steel table to hold our spar fixture. We added a magnetic drill that we could slide around on the steel table to drill the holes we needed through those difficult angles. It worked very well.”

He estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the original structure remained in the left wing and about 80 percent or more original content in the right wing.

“We had to reverse engineer a lot of our parts because drawings were minimally available,” Vadeboncoeur says. “From a tooling standpoint, the rivets needed for the wings were metric. This meant the head angle was different from American standards so we had to have the right tooling to achieve the proper angle. Skin dimpling also dictated a special tool.”

Though a number of manuals are available for the model, “the obvious difficulty is the language barrier.”

Contact

Midwest Aero has a small core group of German fabricators that provided assistance, Vadeboncoeur says. “Many of them are building and sourcing parts for us. Technical German is different from today’s conversational German so we do a lot of Google translations and we pore over reference manuals. We’ve tried to acquire everything we can to help us with translations.”

Each corroded part on the plane required Midwest Aero to create a CAD drawing so that a tool could be fabricated. The restoration shop turned to a local aerospace manufacturer to hydroform the wings’ ribs.

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Restored ME 109 fuselage arrives from Germany.

“They did a nice job,” says Vadeboncoeur, “but because German construction lent a lot of curve to the structure’s 90-degree flanges, the hydroforming process was limited.” Midwest Aero finished with hand forming and used hammers to eliminate any remaining wrinkles. Midwest Aero fit the ribs while they were in soft condition and built the wing with those parts before removing them for heat treating.

“When you quench heat-treated aluminum, you can get distortion,” Vadeboncoeur explains. “So we stored the parts at zero degrees Fahrenheit until we were ready for them.”

The ribs were then reassembled into the wing and held in place with clecos—small metal holders installed in rivet holes to temporarily fasten metal prior to riveting.

Patience proved to be another arrow in Midwest Aero’s quiver. “With this project I’ve been building a new network but it’s on the other side of the pond,” Vadeboncoeur says. “It brings a different level of excitement and challenge to the work. Keeps it fresh. But it also means that sometimes you have to wait.”

Flight plan

Midwest Aero received the reconstructed fuselage in 2018. Original structural parts were salvaged by the Hartmairs and incorporated into the rebuild. The pair also fabricated the engine mount assembly and several smaller components. Vadeboncoeur is evaluating the ME Bf 109 G-6’s parts inventory and what the project still requires toward completion.

“Currently we’re building around the fuselage gas tank, which originally was a large bladder,” he says. “Wood was used between the tank and the airplane’s structure. Surprisingly, much of the wood was in good shape with remnants of the original green paint.”

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Newly fabricated ribs are laid out for restoration of the German fighter plane’s wings.

Midwest Aero expects the Daimler 605 engine, being rebuilt at California-based Vintage Aero Engines, to be ready to run by the end of this year.

A British company restored the propeller. “We still have soft components like the cowling, wing fairings and tips to fabricate,” Vadeboncoeur says. We’re trying to follow original construction methods as closely as possible.”

As the restoration continues, Winter prepares for the test flight. Says Vadeboncoeur, “He is a pilot’s pilot. He’s read a lot of books written by both German and American pilots about what it was like for them during the war years. Having flown his P-51, he’ll be able to apply what he has read to his own flying experience.”

Flying the Messerschmitt may be almost as much of trial as it’s a restoration. “The plane has a strange landing gear arrangement,” says Vadeboncoeur. “It’s splayed out. In a standard aircraft that has a tail wheel or tail dragger at the back, its center of gravity is somewhere near the pilot aft of the main wheels. On those tailwheel aircraft and, in particular, the ME Bf 109 G-6, the center of gravity wants to swing around, causing what we call a ground loop. The airplane had notoriously bad ground handling. That will be challenging for the pilot.”

Winter’s preparation includes practice with a lightweight tail dragger aerobatic plane. Vadeboncoeur muses, “I’m not sure I would have taken on this project if it wasn’t for the customer who asked me to do it. It’s a huge undertaking. We always said we wanted to do something different and, boy, did we get our wish.” FFJ

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