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Home > March 2010 > Restoring a Museum Piece, a Jungle Gym That Once Flew
Restoring a Museum Piece, a Jungle Gym That Once Flew
Posted: 3/18/2010 10:51:10 AM

March 18, 2010
The Grumman F9F Cougar had seen better days, some of them flying in Navy fighter squadrons in the 1950s. But then it was retired and ended up spending years in a park in New Jersey as perhaps the world’s coolest jungle gym.
Now it’s a mess — the once-smooth metal skin rough and spotted, holes here and there. The fuselage is in two pieces. And the wings have been taken off, which, for a high-performance jet aircraft, is a real insult.
The plane, or the pieces that used to be the plane, and one day will be again, lives in a white tent just behind the superstructure of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum on the West Side of Manhattan.
In winter, it’s really cold in there. Yet on many days, in the milky light created by the tent’s sheer white fabric, two people are working — slowly, patiently, methodically — on the Cougar. To them, this is a thing of beauty, a work of art. And with each passing day, it looks a little more like the fearsome fighter jet it once was.
One of the workers is Eric Boehm, the museum’s curator of aviation and aircraft restoration. This is his passion and, luckily for him, it is also his job. The other person working is Dina Ingersole. She is a volunteer. She does this for fun.
The Intrepid has 114 volunteers in all. You can see them in their red shirts showing people around, selling items in the gift shop, answering questions on the captain’s bridge.
But Ms. Ingersole doesn’t meet too many people in that white tent. And some days are even colder than others.
“I’ve gotten up to a maximum of eight layers of clothing working up there,” she said recently. “It’s not too bad as long as you are out of the wind.”
The Intrepid, an Essex-class aircraft carrier, was launched in 1943 and served in World War II — surviving four direct hits by kamikaze planes and additional damage from a near miss — and Vietnam. After retiring from active service, the ship became a museum docked on the West Side in 1982. It underwent a complete refurbishment, much of it done dockside in Staten Island, that was completed in 2008.
How Ms. Ingersole, 51, who works in the tennis world as a tournament director and volunteer coordinator, came to be on the deck of that aircraft-carrier-turned-museum in winter had to do with another fighter jet, an A-4B Skyhawk.
This sleek gray machine flew before and during the Vietnam War. When the Intrepid was moved to Staten Island for its renovation, a Skyhawk that actually served on the Intrepid was undergoing restoration on the ship. Mr. Boehm began a search for pilots who had flown this exact plane — Bureau Number 142833 — to learn their stories.
One of them was a man named Rollie Shea, a professional tennis referee. He found the number in his old logbook. And he happened to know Dina Ingersole.
“He knew I was into naval aviation — it is like a series of connect-the-dots in my life: my earliest ambition was to be an astronaut,” she said. “With Rollie, having a person tell you real live stories made it immediate and interesting; that kicked my interest into high gear. He looped me in on his e-mails to Eric.”
Eventually, with some downtime between tennis tournaments, Ms. Ingersole, who lives on Roosevelt Island, visited the Intrepid in Staten Island just as Mr. Boehm, anticipating the ship’s return to Manhattan, was on the hunt for volunteers. Old replicas were being removed as the museum was upgraded. Only real planes were going to be displayed, and some of them needed serious work.
Ms. Ingersole loved the idea of pitching in. She was a far cry from Mr. Boehm’s usual pool of applicants: youngsters obsessed with airplanes, or retirees who once flew airplanes and liked to tell stories about them. Did Mr. Boehm immediately jump at the chance to have this woman with no real mechanical experience work on his precious airplanes?
Not exactly.
“This is dirty, hard work,” he said while standing next to the de-winged Cougar. “I tried to dissuade her. I tried to palm her off on every other department here.”
But Ms. Ingersole was hooked. She started coming in three or four days a week — far more than the four hours a week Mr. Boehm usually gets out of his volunteers. He taught her how to replace the spots where rust had eaten through the metal — she can cut out and shape metal patches by hand and then put them in place with rivets. She has added 22 patches in a relatively small portion of the tail.
But there is much more work to do: Mr. Boehm estimates it will be two years before the Cougar is done — a reasonable amount of time for an aircraft restoration.
And Ms. Ingersole will be up there, when she’s not working at the West Side Tennis Club in Queens or traveling home to Australia with her husband, Bob. When it’s warmer, they will open the tent so museum visitors can see the plane and Mr. Boehm and the inch-by-inch progress they are making. This is the one time when the work is not so solitary — she answers questions and senses that the airplane aficionados who stop to chat get a kick out of seeing her there.
“I’m known as Rosie the Riveter in certain circles,” she said.
Apparently, even in our modern society, working on old airplanes tends to be perceived as guy stuff.
“They are pleased there is a woman willing to get dirty and do this stuff and crawl around under these pieces of equipment,” she said. “I’ll hear children say, ‘Oh, look, there’s a woman there doing this.’ ”
Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company
Also check out the New York Times interactive 360-degree panoramic photo of Intrepid’s Flight Deck:



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