This story first ran in the April 2019 issue of EAA Sport Aviation.
When Jim Irwin, EAA Lifetime 209874, of Corona, California, and I met a little more than four years ago to discuss a feature article on his company, Aircraft Spruce and Specialty, and its then-upcoming 50th anniversary, I noticed something out of the ordinary in his extremely neat and tidy office. Located front and center on his dark reddish-brown wooden desk was an old glass Jif peanut butter jar full of rusted nuts, bolts, and washers. When I inquired about the jar sitting prominently on his desk, he smiled, lowered his head, paused, and took a deep breath.
“That was a long time ago,
and I wish I could go back in time for just one day,” he said.
Jim explained that those
nuts, bolts, and washers were meaningful keepsakes from his “baptism in
aviation” back in the 1950s.
“My father, Bob, had a
Vultee BT-13 that he had purchased after World War II,” Jim said. “In the late
1950s, when I was 5 or 6 years old, my father would take me out to the airport
—Brackett Field near Fullerton, California — when he worked on his airplane and
gave me a very important task. In order to help keep the airplane flying, I was
to fill that glass jar with every nut and bolt and washer I could find on the
airfield. If I succeeded, my reward would be a chocolate malt and a
cheeseburger. In reality, it was my dad’s way of keeping a 6-year-old busy
scouring the ramp for hardware and not bothering him while he worked on his
Looking back now, Jim
said those were some of the greatest times of his life.
“It’s how I got inspired
in aviation by my father,” he said. “And, it’s the main reason I have been on a
pursuit to see whatever became of his airplane.”
The Irwin family’s BT-13 Valiant was produced as a B model
and was one of almost 10,000 that had been built in Downey, California, in 1944
by the Vultee Aircraft Corporation. After acceptance by the Army Air Forces,
the BT-13 was placed in the training pipeline where the airplane was used to
teach the second stage of military flight training called basic. Flown to
Michigan, the airplane helped teach a nation how to fly before being shipped
back to the West Coast to a base near Fresno, California, and then to one near
Long Beach, California, where it would be sold as surplus.
“My father bought it in 1951 for $700,” Jim said. “These
aircraft were based all over the country, and if the pilots graduated from
basic training, they advanced onto the AT-6 Texan. Many of these young men
became fighter pilots, and all of them cut their teeth in the BT-13.”
Bob Irwin was not a fighter pilot. Bob’s role in the war
effort was as a Link Trainer instructor during WWII teaching pilots to fly on
instruments, and he didn’t acquire his pilot’s license until 1949 at the
University of Illinois. After moving out west in 1950, Bob rented various
Aeronca Champs, and Cessna 120s and 140s before deciding he needed his own
“Although my father was not a military pilot, it was his
goal to fly a military airplane,” Jim said.
In September of 1951, Bob and a bunch of his buddies went
out to Long Beach Airport and inspected the line of BT-13s for sale. All of
them shelled out $700 apiece and became the owners and caretakers of a group of
BT-13s. They also formed their own flying club.
Bob joined the local Civil Air Patrol (CAP) squadron and
painted the distinctive CAP markings on the BT-13. According to Jim, Bob was
extremely proud of his airplane and flew it all over California for the next
two years until something else caught his eye.
“He met my mother, Flo, told her he had an airplane, and
asked if she would like to go out on a flying date,” Jim said. “About six
months later they were married and took their honeymoon in this airplane to La
Bob continued to fly the BT-13 for 12 years and gave Jim
his first airplane ride in the BT-13 when he was 5 weeks old. He sold it in
1962 due to a growing family and the need for an airplane with more seats to
carry them all. According to Jim, when Bob sold the BT-13, a buyer from Texas
flew it away, and Bob was convinced the only reason the buyer wanted it was for
the engine so it could be repurposed on a crop duster. It was a common practice
in that era, especially for BT-13s.
“It’s amazing what an old airplane and fond memories can
do to you,” Jim said. “My brother John and I, out of curiosity, wanted to find
the answer of whatever became of Dad’s airplane.”
Both Jim and John assumed — as they had been told by their
father — that the airplane had been scrapped. Around 2013, John called Jim all
excited and told him he may have found the BT-13 while searching the internet.
“The original N-number — N54822 — was different and now
showed up as N13VV,” Jim said. “But the information he found linked it to my
Jim began his own detective work and searched his in-house
Aircraft Spruce database to see if the owner was a customer — he was. Jim found
that Hal Ewing was the current owner. Jim knew he had to call to verify if this
was his dad’s long-lost BT-13.
“Hal confirmed right away that the BT-13 was, in fact, my
father’s,” Jim said.
Hal, an airline pilot, had owned it for 20 years and had
been flying it until he had experienced an engine failure in 1996 and had to
dead-stick into a short private strip. Hal trailered it back to his hangar in
South Carolina, and it sat until a new owner bought it in 2015. That new owner
Jim actually presented Hal with the check for the BT-13 at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2015. Both men knew how important it was to get this airplane back in the Irwin family. When Jim purchased the BT-13, Hal indicated that within a couple of weeks he could have the airplane flying.
“Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case,” Jim said. “When it
arrived back in California, it became evident that wouldn’t be the kind of
airplane we’d want to fly. I knew I didn’t want a museum piece. I wanted an
airplane that my father would be proud of and one that I would feel safe when I
took my family flying in it. I decided to have it restored and knew that Carl
Scholl and his partner, Tony Ritzman, of Aero Trader in Chino, California,
would be the only guys I would trust to complete the task.”
Aero Trader has been involved in the aircraft restoration
business since the mid-1970s when Carl, EAA 184061, bought himself “a slightly
used B-25 Mitchell” because he liked the look of it. Since that time, Aero
Trader has primarily focused its restoration work on B-25s and other assorted
warbirds — including the 2017 EAA AirVenture Oshkosh Grand Champion World War
II A-20 Havoc owned by Rod Lewis of Lewis Air Legends. Aero Trader was awarded
a Gold Wrench for its meticulous attention to detail, which was just one more
selling point for Jim.
“When Jim Irwin first approached us about doing the
restoration, he had mentioned that the former owner thought it could fly in a
few weeks’ worth of work,” Carl said. “Well, we found out pretty quickly that
it probably wouldn’t have flown in two and a half or three weeks.”
The Aero Trader crew found that although the Pratt &
Whitney R-985 radial engine had been overhauled, it was 20 years ago, and it
had not been run since. Aero Trader sent it out for a fresh overhaul while it
concentrated on the rest of the airplane. Carl found that the control surfaces
needed to be re-covered, and a lot of the paint was chipping and needed to be
redone. That was the easy part.
“Basically, all the components that you can unbolt off the
airplane needed to come off and either be rebuilt, replaced, or at least looked
at and inspected,” Carl said. “Since the airplane was disassembled when it came
in, the wings were off the center section. We pulled the fuselage off of the
center section so that we could do inspections on the fuel tanks. The fuel
tanks on BT-13s are called ‘wet wings,’ and they’re notorious for leaking.”
One of Carl’s mechanics, Stuart Brosch, was the one who
was responsible for sealing the tanks and getting those back to better than
new. Stuart pulled off all the necessary mechanical devices on the trailing
edge and opened up the panels underneath the wing. On BT-13s, there are
approximately eight panels per tank. Once Stuart removed the panels, he
proceeded to clean out all the acquired gunk and debris.
“There’s a special sealing compound that we use to fill
the inside of the tank,” Carl said. “It took at least a half a dozen tries of
putting the compound in there, letting it dry for a day, and then filling the
fuel tanks, still finding out it’s still leaking. Drain the fuel, let it dry
out, and go back in there and try to find the areas where it’s leaking. Once we
accomplished that, then it was time to move on to the fuselage area.”
The Aero Trader mechanics began inspecting all of the
cables and pulleys, and what couldn’t be refurbished had to be replaced. The
next item on the long restoration list was the components for the main landing
gear. These were disassembled, and all seals were replaced and checked for
leaks. The master brake cylinders had their own set of issues for Carl. These
had to be disassembled and inspected.
“One of them was completely shot, so we were on the hunt
for several months looking for another master brake cylinder,” Carl said.
The mechanics also found that a lot of the fuselage skins
and surfaces may have looked good from 40 feet away, but that wasn’t the case
up close. Corrosion in certain areas was a major issue and needed to be
“The tail cone on this thing was in really bad shape when
it came in,” Stuart said. “That was just one of the many major repairs I had to
do. The access panels along the fuselage area had some bad Dzus fasteners and
some torn edges. The engine cowling also had some major cracks in the cowl
formers. There are leather pads in there that had to be replaced because they
were so old and deteriorated. But this is what I love to do — restore history
back to original. It was very interesting to see the design of how the engineers
back in the 1940s put these airplanes together. They were true craftsmen and
overbuilt just about everything.”
As the BT-13 makeover continued, the next items needing
attention were the canopies. Aero Trader ended up replacing the side panels,
the flat panels, and the sliding canopies. Some of the plexiglass was in pretty
nice shape, and Carl was able to salvage most of the glass in it with an in-house
“We polished it up, and it turned out looking pretty
nice,” Carl said.
The mechanics then turned their focus to the interior and
redid the front and back cockpit seats and the rudder pedals before tackling
the control surfaces.
“The flaps, rudder, and the elevators are fabric-covered,”
Carl said. “And we had to have those re-covered before final assembly. We sent
all the instruments out and had them overhauled, and there were very few that
we had to actually replace.”
During the restoration process, Jim was able to visit the
project quite often and see what progress had been made with the airplane.
“It wasn’t just any BT-13,” Jim said. “It was my dad’s,
and Carl was very reassuring that it would get done and it would be a nice,
safe airplane for me to enjoy.”
After conferring with Carl, Jim decided to have the BT-13
painted silver because the skin had deteriorated a bit in the last 70 years and
needed to be repaired. Both men agreed that it was easier to paint it silver
than to try to keep it in bare aluminum in a polished form. As Carl’s team
finished the restoration process, the airplane received its final prep and
paint with CAP colors at Century Aircraft Painting in Chino.
“Generally, we want to make sure that every aircraft we work
on will be in airworthy condition when we finish,” Carl said. “I knew that Jim
wanted this airplane to not only honor his father but [to be] one that would
fly for a long time. After three years of restoration work, I don’t believe he
was disappointed with the results.”
Mark Moody has been involved with historic aviation
treasures pretty much all his life. His main interests have been in the WWII
aircraft types ever since he could utter the word airplane. That’s probably why
he ended up as a mechanic and pilot who both flies and works on them.
“I got my license just out of high school and worked in
general aviation for about five years,” Mark said. “But my heart was with these
old birds, so I dove into full-time warbird maintenance and restoration after
joining Carl at Aero Trader.”
Mark’s role in the Irwin BT-13 didn’t happen until the
project was nearing completion. He was involved in both the rigging and
overseeing of the engine installation, including all of the various feet and
yards of plumbing components and hardware.
“I was the final inspector to sign the airplane off,” Mark
said. “I’ve been involved with this type of aircraft since 1980. I own a T-6
that my father and I bought in 1983, and I have BT-13 time as well, so once the
aircraft was signed off, I became the test pilot on May 23, 2018.”
Because of Mark’s radial engine time, he began with
pulling the propeller through to avoid hydraulic lock, and once assured he had
free movement, he climbed aboard the BT-13 with Jim nervously watching nearby.
With the fuel turned on and Mark wobbling up the fuel pressure and then priming
the engine, it was time to begin turning the propeller blades.
“Once I got a few blades turning, I turned the mag switch
on and brought the Pratt & Whitney back to life,” Mark said.
With all instruments in the green, Mark coaxed the BT-13
forward and began his S-turn waddle to the active runway at Chino. After
running through his checklist, everything appeared normal and he was cleared to
take the BT-13 back to the air after a more than 20-year hiatus.
“The first flight was pretty uneventful,” Mark said. “My
main concern on the first hop was to make sure the engine’s happy and running
smoothly. The weight and balance seemed to feel good. You figure that out
pretty quick if it isn’t.”
Mark flew around the airport for 10 minutes when he found
that the radios weren’t working very well. So, he came back and quickly took
care of that problem. Other than that, the airplane was mainly squawk-free.
“I had never met Jim Irwin until the day that we test flew
the airplane for the first time, and that’s where I really learned about the
history behind the airplane,” he said. “It’s also when I was asked by Jim to
fly it to Oshkosh.”
With more than a dozen hours on the tach and everything
running smoothly, Mark departed Chino for the 1,500-nm flight to Oshkosh,
Wisconsin. By the time Mark and the BT-13 arrived at AirVenture, it had close
to 30 hours on it and was running flawlessly.
“The one thing about flying a BT-13 on a long
cross-country is you realize quickly it doesn’t get anywhere in a hurry,” Mark
said. “It only does about 120 miles an hour, so you have a lot of time to
contemplate life as you’re flying along. But you get to see the United States
at a slow pace and take in all the splendor. It was a memorable adventure I
will never forget.”
The Spirit Lives On
Jim’s first recollection of flying in the family BT-13 was
sitting on his mother’s lap in the back seat. By the time Jim grew a little
older, he graduated to being able to sit in the back seat by himself, paying
attention to simple instructions with his dad up front teaching him how to fly.
“On every flight, he lifted me into the airplane and
buckled me in,” Jim said. “Before he climbed in his seat, he would look at me
and say, ‘Just remember one thing, don’t touch anything.’ Obviously, I had
access to those rear controls, including the mixture control, so I listened to
what he said.”
Jim fondly recalls some of those early flights with the
canopy open and the warm California wind swirling through the cockpit.
“The smells of the oil and the fuel and my dad talking to
me over the intercom was something I will never forget,” he said. “When we got
the airplane restored and I flew it for the first time, I flew from the back
seat with Mark Moody. It was just an incredible experience to be in that same
back seat … 60-something years later. I was extremely emotional, particularly
when we took a flight out over Lake Mathews here in Southern California. The
only difference was the guy up front was a different pilot. I could feel my dad
in the airplane with me, and I’ve had that feeling several times since then.”
Jim’s dad died in 2015 at the age of 95 before he could
witness his old airplane and friend fly again. But Jim feels his dad would be
very pleased and extremely excited about old 54822 coming home to Southern
“I think he would probably buy me another cheeseburger and a malt if he could see today what we’ve done with his airplane,” Jim said. “I want to continue to fly it a bit, but at the same time, our intention is to donate this airplane to Planes of Fame Air Museum here at Chino Airport where the aircraft can be displayed. My wife, Nanci, and I have four children, all in their 30s now, and active at Aircraft Spruce in management. Two of the boys, Mike and Jeff, have pilot’s licenses now, and Rob and Krissy will get theirs eventually. I intend to give all of them a ride in the airplane, and I certainly want to have Nanci ride in the airplane just like my dad flew his wife around. I know it’s what my father would have wanted.”
Jim Busha, EAA 119684, is an avid pilot and longtime contributor to EAA publications. He is EAA director of publications and editor of Warbirds and Vintage Airplane magazines, and the owner of a 1943 Stinson L-5.