The Sikorsky VS-44A Flying Boat
Restoration

 

 

 

 

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Igor I. Sikorsky's VS-44A was a large transport aircraft with a wingspan of 124 feet, an overall length of about 80 feet and a gross weight of 57,500 pounds. It was powered by four Pratt & Whitney Twin-Wasp radial engines that produced a combined 4,800 horsepower for take-off and a cruise speed of about 210 miles per hour. Her nonstop range, depending on load and the quantity of fuel, was approximately 4,000 miles, which was unmatched performance for the time. In the summer of 1940 American Export Airline (AEA) ordered three VS-44A's at a total cost of $2,100,000. These aircraft were dubbed the "Flying Aces" by AEA and named the Excalibur, Excambian and Exeter. AEA advertising boasted minimum vibration, maximum sound-proofing, individual sofas, full length beds, roomy dressing rooms, full galley for serving hot meals, snack bar service, attractive lounge and smoking room, proper heating and ventilation and more square foot area per passenger. No other contemporary aircraft had these luxuries. AEA signed a contract with the Naval Air Transport Service to operate a wartime trans-Atlantic route in January, 1942. On May 26 the Excalibur made the maiden nonstop flight from New York to Foynes, Ireland and on June 20 regular round trip service began. The Flying Aces proved to be the world's longest range airliners and set record after record. They were the only aircraft capable of flying nonstop across the North and South Atlantic at full payload in excess of 3,100 miles.

 

The Excambian is the only example remaining today. In 1950 a group from Baltimore rebuilt the Excambian to carry freight to Amazon River natives. Their plan failed which stranded the Excambian in Ancon Harbor near Lima, Peru. In 1957 Avalon Air Transport ferried the aircraft to California where she shuttled thousands of tourists between Long Beach, California and nearby Catalina Island. In 1968 Antilles Air Boats acquired the Excambian to ferry passengers among the Virgin Islands. Later in 1968 she was extensively damaged and retired from service. In 1976 Antilles President Charles Blair and his Wife, Maureen O'Hara, donated the aircraft to the Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola, Florida. The Naval Aviation Museum eventually put her on permanent loan to the New England Air Museum.


TheVS-44A Excambian Large Transport Flying Boat Restoration
The Aircraft arrived by barge at the Sikorsky Bridgeport facility, and then transported to the Sikorsky Memorial Airport on April 6, 1983. A team of Sikorsky employees researched the possibility of restoring the VS-. T44A. The flying boat had suffered extensive weather damage following its grounding. Returning it to its original splendor would be a massive undertaking.

 

 

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The Excambian as she arrives by barge at the Sikorsky plant in Bridgeport, Conn. (Pete Montini – Sikorsky Aircraft)

 

 

From the Sikorsky Bridgeport facility, the aircraft was transported to the Sikorsky Memorial Airport on April 6, 1983. Sikorsky Aircraft Chairman and C.E.O. Eugene Buckley, believed the historic aircraft was worthy of restoration. A team of Sikorsky employees researched the possibility. The flying boat had suffered extensive weather damage following its grounding. Returning it to its original splendor would be a massive undertaking. After several years of research and support efforts, the team a group of volunteers, mostly retired Sikorsky employees, several of whom had originally built the aircraft, accepted the challenge. Harry Hleva, a retired Sikorsky employee, was asked to lead the effort

 


The Restoration Volunteers
Harry Hleva, VS-44A restoration coordinator supervised every aspect of the Excambian restoration effort. A 36-year retired Sikorsky employee, he worked on the assembly of all three flying boats during the 1940’s. His decade long “break from retirement” to lead the restoration effort was characterized by hard work, camaraderie and extraordinary devotion to a unique aircraft. He says as his fellow workers: “They’re a first-class group doing a first class job. We are equals, peers and friends. We share advice and problems, and things get done--- done with pride.”

 

 

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Harry Hleva, VS-44A restoration coordinator



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The first wave of volunteers and Administrators


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The completion Team

 

Photo of the restoration regulars taken May 1997. (Left to Right)First row—Erwin Botsford, Fred Chirardini, Harry Hleva, John Kopchik, Second row—John Drignet, Vic Politi, Lou Havanich, Joe Losardo, Larry Dzialo, Art Stanko, Frank Dawe, Rudy Opitz, Third row—Bill Smethurst, John Liddell, Joe French, Augie Cuomo, Ken Kraemer, Bob Kretvix, Wally Wanamaker, Pete Peterson, Carl McDonald. (Erwin Botsford, Photo)

 

 

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Restoration Commences


The six years of sitting idle at the ramp took its toll on the aircraft. The hot, humid days and the salt spray accelerated the oxidation of the airframe and aluminum skin. Charlie Blair and his wife, the actress Maureen O’Hara, realizing that it would be economically unfeasible to refurbish the aircraft to operational status, and concerned that time has taken its toll on the aircraft, decided to donate Excambian to a museum.

 

Doing so would allow the aircraft to be restored for static display and preserve for future generations the romance of the flying boat era. In 1976, the aircraft   was offered to the New England Air Museum, but unfortunately the museum could not arrange to have the aircraft transported  to Connecticut

 

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The VS44-A hull is moved into the restoration hangar for work to begin.

 

In the summer of 1987, the Excambian was moved into a temporary structure at Sikorsky's Bridgeport airport facility, less than 300 yards from its Birthplace

 

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The VS-44A  hull is in position for restoration activity

 

 

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March 7, 1988. Looking Aft, Portside Hull ¾ view showing Bottom Damage

 

 

 

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Danny Laezzo, Carl McDonald, and Fred Ghirardini Work on the trailing edge of an outer wing panel.

 

 

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John Kopchik working on the center section. (Pete Montini curtesy Sikorsky Aircraft)

 

 

 

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Restoration volunteer Bus Bennett working on the interior of the Excambian. (Pete Montini courtesy Sikorsky Aircraft

 

 

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Replacement of the skin on the port side of the hull is underway

 

 

 

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A photo taken during the winter of 1996 shows the nearly completed hull next to the nearly completed center section and outer wing panels. (Erwin Botsford, Photo)

 

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The center wing section is trial-fitted to the hull in the spring of 1997 (Erwin Botsford Photo)

 

 

 

 

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The restored hull is moved out of the restoration hangar on June 18, 1997 to begin the trip to the NEAM. (Erwin Botsford Photo)

 

 

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With specially constructed slings and a lot of “know-how”, the Meyer riggers turn the hull on its side in preparation  for the trip to the museum. (Erwin Botsford Photo)

 

 

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A good view of the bottom of the Excambian’s hull prior to the journey from Stratford to the museum in Windsor Locks. (Erwin Botsford Photo)

 

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The Excambian is undergoing the fuselage paint application at NEAM

 

 

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The Excambian paint work is nearing completion at the NEAM

 

 

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The VS-44A EXCAMBIAN in all its splendor on display at the New England Air Museum

 

 

 

Ref:
SikorskyVS-44 Flying Boat   Harry E. Pember

Photos from IISHA files

 

Prepared by John M Kowalonek
July 2012

visit VS-44A FLYING BOAT Web Site

 

See Restoration of the VS-44A Flying Boat NEWSLETTER (SIKORSKY HERITAGE) MARCH 2002

 

 

Last update APRIL 16, 2013