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More than a dozen Sealand Aviation employees walked away from their jobs Monday afternoon at Campbell River Airport.
But they returned a short time later with photos and memories of a sight rarely seen in the last 70 years — and even more rarely in Campbell River.
A World War II-era Douglas B-25 bomber, painstakingly painted by Campbell River’s Sealand Aviation over the past several months, rumbled through the sky with its classic twin-propeller roar Monday afternoon after taking off from the airport runway for its return flight to Payne Field in Everett, Wash.
The aircraft, built in the U.S. in 1943, served as a training bomber in the U.S. and Canada and never saw battle.
But thanks to the ministrations of Sealand painter Chris Coon, along with his father and brother, the big plane was transformed into a replica of “Grumpy”, the most decorated of the RAF’s B-25 fleet during the war.
“The logistics to paint it were quite involved, because it’s a big aircraft,” said Aaron Spetifore, director of maintenance at Sealand.
“We basically converted the hangar into a paint booth over a couple of weekends, when the guys were away,” said Coon. “It was a pretty cool process.”
The bomber, which includes replica 50-calibre machine guns in the nose and roof positions, was painted the traditional dark green on top and flat gray underneath. It was also given “D-Day” identification stripes on each wing.
The real challenge, though, was decorating the forward fuselage with the image of its namesake — the dwarf Grumpy from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves — and 125 bombs, each signifying one of the record number of combat missions flown by the original Grumpy.
“One of the things that was hardest was the nose design,” said Spetifore. “Nowadays, everything is done with digital design and decals. We ended up bringing in an artist from Qualicum and he painted all of it on.”
From left, Sealand Aviation owner Bill Alder, maintenance director Aaron Spetifor and painter Chris Coon stand with the WW2-era B-25 bomber the company painted for the Historic Flight Foundation of Everett, Wash. —J.R. Rardon/Campbell River Mirror
Sealand, which employs 50 people in operations at the airport and on Tyee Spit, provides maintenance, repair and painting services for aircraft, as well as manufacturing its own kits and fabricating parts.
The company’s relationship with the Historic Flight Foundation and museum in Everett began several years ago, when Sealand owner Bill Alder was referred for painting and other work on a DC3 the foundation had in Victoria.
“Through a friend of a friend sort of thing in the industry it was, ‘Well, call Bill; he can do that,'” Alder said. “But we work with planes from Alaska to Washington, as well as Fiji and Australia.”
The B-25, however, was a bit of a rock star while in and around the Sealand hangar. As part of the painting project, it had to be stripped completely first, then painted section by section.
Coon’s father, Tony, came out of semi-retirement to work on the bomber, along with Coon’s brother, Dave, a painter at Harbour Air in Vancouver.
“This is my dad’s 54th year painting,” said Coon. “It’s a good thing he was around. He’s done several warbirds over the years.”
When it was completed, shop staff replicated a war-era photo of airmen posing with the original Grumpy.
On Monday afternoon, pilots Vera Martinovich and Michael Kopp arrived from Everett to fly the big bird back to Payne Field, and Sealand employees streamed out of the building to watch.
“This is the oldest flying production B-25 still in existence,” said Martinovich, who with Kopp became certified as pilot in command for the bomber in 2011. “It’s heavy, there are no hydraulics, it has no heat, and it’s loud.”
Pointing out the proximity of the propeller blades to the glass-walled cockpit, Martinovich said, “The joke about the B-25 was that the pilot was always deaf in the left ear and the co-pilot was deaf in the right ear.”
Inside, the plane is strictly utilitarian. It is mostly metal, with hard edges and a minimum of padding. Narrow crawl spaces allowed access for gunners and observers to slink through to viewing and shooting stations. The centre of the plane’s belly opens into the large bomb bay.
Access to the interior is through a pair of simple, drop-down ladders directly under the craft.
“It was designed to be used, then scrapped,” said Martinovich.
The new replica Grumpy not only avoided the scrap heap, but has spent most of its life as a functioning, flying aircraft. After serving as a training bomber in Canada, it returned to the U.S. and was placed into duty as a firefighter in Alaska and the West Coast. Eventually, it was purchased by an owner in England who flew it in air shows.
The Historic Flight Foundation bought it in 2009 and returned it to the West Coast for display and air shows, and it put on a one-plane performance over Campbell River Airport on a 15-minute maintenance flight.
“Can you imagine a hundred of those flying over the English Channel to Normandy?” one observer noted. “It must have been deafening.”
And, of course, it looked pretty cool, too.
“It was a really rewarding project in the end,” Coon said of the painting of the historic craft. “To look at it like this is like, wow.
“You don’t see a lot of these in the course of a painter’s job.”