Education through Aircraft Restoration Shapes the Future of Aviation

WWII B-25 bomber flying over mountains
WWII B-25 bomber flying over mountainsWWII B-25 bomber flying over mountains

Warbirds of Glory Museum Restores WWII-era B-25 Bomber Aircraft

Every B-25 has a history.

The B-25 Mitchell bomber played a role in nearly every theater of World War II and was used by all three branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Aircraft restoration is critical to preserving the history associated with each B-25, which is why Patrick Mihalek and Todd Trainor founded the Warbirds of Glory Museum. But Patrick and Todd wanted to do more than just preserve history; they wanted to use history as a hands-on classroom to train young aviation enthusiasts, as well as honor the “Greatest Generation” who built and flew these aircraft.

In 2013, the Warbirds of Glory Museum recovered a B-25 that had been abandoned on an Alaskan sandbar for more than 40 years and transported it to Michigan for restoration to airworthy status.

Today, the B-25 is appropriately named “Sandbar Mitchell,” and serves as the classroom for the Warbirds of Glory apprenticeship program. Students in the apprenticeship program work alongside industry experts and take part in the restoration of Sandbar Mitchell to gain valuable real-world experience for future careers in aviation.

Every B-25 has a history, and this is the fascinating history–and future–of the Sandbar Mitchell.

The History of B-25J 44-30733

B-25J Mitchell 44-30733 was manufactured in 1944 and delivered to the USAF in 1945. The plane served as a bomber trainer from 1945 to 1959 at the Pyote, Vance and Randolf air bases. In 1960, it was sold as surplus and used as a fire suppression bomber for the Johnson Flying Service in Missoula, Montana and later by Edgar Thorsrud in Fairbanks, Alaska. In June, 1969 the B-25J suffered engine failure shortly after takeoff and landed wheels-up on a sandbar in the middle of the Tanana River. The cost to recover and repair the bomber was more than the cost of a new airframe, so the decision was made to abandon the aircraft. The B-25J would remain on that sandbar for more than 40 years and earn the nickname “Sandbar Mitchell.”

In 2013, the Warbirds of Glory museum recovered and transported Sandbar Mitchell to Michigan where it would take on a new mission–and a new life. As the restoration project began, the team realized that Sandbar Mitchell shared the same “8Z” tail number as a B-25J which had been shot down over Italy in March, 1945.

Historical WWII image of B-25J Mitchell flying in part of 3-ship formation on March 20, 1945Historical WWII image of B-25J Mitchell flying in part of 3-ship formation on March 20, 1945

Caption : On March 20, 1945, B-25J 43-27537 ship “8Z” was part of a three-ship formation to suppress the German Flak gun positions protecting the Campo North railroad bridges. The six-man crew flying in 8Z that day were Pilot - 2nd Lt. James E. Jacobs, Copilot - 2nd Lt. Hardy D. Narron, Top Turret Gunner/Flight Engineer - S/Sgt Medard R. Tafoya, Bombardier - 1st Lt. George W. Hammond, Radio/Gunner - S/Sgt Jack B. Willingham and Tail Gunner - S/Sgt Melvin E. Kelley. 

All six crew members bailed out before the B-25J crashed, but they were soon captured and three were executed by Nazi SS troops.

To fulfill the museum’s objective of honoring the men who flew B-25s during World War II, volunteers from the Warbirds of Glory museum visited the “8Z” crash site in Italy in 2017 to recover artifacts and salvageable parts that could be restored to fly again with the Sandbar “8Z.”

Hands-On History: Education through Restoration

Students working in Warbirds of Glory apprenticeship programStudents working in Warbirds of Glory apprenticeship program

The Warbirds of Glory apprenticeship program provides students with valuable firsthand experience in aircraft restoration and maintenance. 

The classroom is in part the Sandbar Mitchell itself.

The mentors are skilled tradesmen, Airframe & Power Plant (A&P) experts, and veterans.

The training is hands-on and immersive.

The students learn a wide range of skills–including metal forming, hydraulics, electronics, and automated manufacturing–that bring history to life through modern technology.

For example, since the original components of a B-25J are often difficult to source, students learn how to enter the manufacturer’s original, handwritten blueprints into CAD/CAM software tied to CNC machines to produce the parts. 

This hands-on education gives students a diverse set of skills and experience that set them up for successful careers in aviation manufacturing and maintenance.

High-Demand History: Graduates in High-Demand from Top Aviation Employers

Traditional aviation maintenance programs typically train students using modern, operational aircraft. Students in the Warbirds of Glory apprenticeship program are trained on the Sandbar Mitchell (and a second B-25 intended for static display). The restoration of period aircraft is more complex and requires additional skills that are in high demand from top aviation employers.

“The wide range of skills, training, and hands-on experience students in the apprenticeship program receive is what sets them up for success in the future,” said Todd.

Working side-by-side with skilled tradesmen and A&P experts, students are trained in maintenance, shop discipline, operation of heavy equipment, and workplace safety.

“To maximize career opportunities for graduates, we heavily enforce the importance of workplace safety to ensure compliance with OSHA regulations,” said Patrick. 

Student smiles from cockpit of B-25 Mitchell during aircraft restoration programStudent smiles from cockpit of B-25 Mitchell during aircraft restoration program

Safety training is a core part of the apprenticeship program, as it’s a requirement for any career in aviation maintenance. Top aviation maintenance employers have very specific legal responsibilities regarding workplace safety, so comprehensive and thorough training is required to prepare students for future success.

While requisite safety procedures for contemporary aircraft maintenance are similar to aircraft restoration, the safety training that students in the apprenticeship program receive is further enhanced by the unique nature of aircraft restoration.

For example, aircraft manufactured in the 1940s utilized radium and tritium in cockpit gauges. Leaded paint was also used throughout the aircraft. Working with and storing hazardous materials requires vital training and experience.

“We train students using top-of-the-line equipment and partner with leading manufacturers to ensure students are prepared for careers in aviation maintenance–or any industry for that matter,” said Patrick. For example, the students use Checkers aviation wheel chocks with locking ropes that were engineered to comply with safety regulations for oversized aircrafts. They also use Justrite steel paint safety cabinets designed with extra shelves specifically for paint cans, aerosols and other paint products necessary for restoration. All cabinets meet and exceed the NFPA 30 and OSHA 29 code of Federal Regulations.

Students and teachers in workshop of Warbirds of Glory B-25 aircraft restoration programStudents and teachers in workshop of Warbirds of Glory B-25 aircraft restoration program

The in-depth training from experts with extensive industry experience in legal and union safety requirements results in a strong competitive advantage for students.

Tyler, a 2018 graduate of the Warbirds of Glory apprenticeship program, explains how the diverse training he received from the apprenticeship program prepared him for a successful career with the USAF.

“The skills and disciplines I learned during my apprenticeship with Warbirds of Glory were extremely helpful during my time in boot camp with the USAF. So much so that I earned the highest score on the mechanical and knowledge assessment test and was immediately offered a position as Crew Chief of the B-1 Lancer bomber with the USAF,” said Tyler.

If all goes as planned, the Sandbar Mitchell will be restored to flying condition by 2028. When it returns to the skies for the first time in 60 years, the aircraft will take flight as the most authentically restored B-25 in existence.

Every B-25 has a history.

The Sandbar Mitchell has a bright future–and so do graduates of the Warbirds of Glory apprenticeship program.