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Privateer Stands Tall at AirVenture 2015

By Frederick A. Johnsen

July 24, 2015It's the last one flying, a monument not only to the Navy and Coast Guard, but a venerated icon of decades of firefighting service. The silver four-engine PB4Y-2 Privateer patrol bomber at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2015 is the pride of a group of Arizonans who feared it might get scrapped if they did not buy it.

A shake-up in the way the U.S. Forest Service contracted firefighting air tankers led to an auction of the fleet of air tankers operated by Hawkins and Powers in Greybull, Wyoming, in 2007. In the mix were four World War II PB4Y-2 Privateers.

Joe Shoen, Robert Kropp, and a few friends decided to buy one of the Privateers, and they approached warbird specialist David Goss of GossHawk Unlimited about maintaining the big bomber. Goss asked the men: "Have you ever owned a warbird before?" The answer was "No."

Goss quickly advised them not to take it apart; get it ready to ferry safely, and then be prepared to work on it in bite-size projects. Goss had seen other enthusiasts get in over their heads by disassembling a warbird beyond their capability to reassemble the puzzle. Under his guidance, the Privateer's rebuilding has been in stages small enough where "we can always get it back together in a couple weeks."

The first hurdle was a complex inspection and reinforcement of the wing before the FAA would allow the bomber to fly. Three years and $300,000 after the auction, the PB4Y-2 was ready to leave Wyoming for Arizona.

With a sense of relief that this grand old bomber would fly again, Shoen's band of devotees began to contemplate its future.  For awhile, it kept its last coat of colorful paint and markings like it wore in fire service.

But the Coast Guard pedigree of this aircraft, evident in the search windows put in the waist and the bulging multi-paned Plexiglas nose, caused the team to strip the paint and add minimalist markings depicting the Privateer's earlier career.

Out came the fire retardant tanks from the double bomb bays, on went a set of aged but functional roll-up bomb bay doors.

Shoen is patient about the bomber he shepherds: "This is a lifetime project," he says. Goss agrees: "It's a work in progress." Goss, the self-described worrier of the team, says he likes to ride in the waist section, scanning from the huge windows at the Privateer in flight and making notes on things to inspect later.

Goss' vigilance and the team's devotion resulted in a good-flying warbird, despite the predictions of some that it would be too much for the group to handle. Part of the formula for success of the Privateer venture is the early negative comments from outsiders, inspiring Goss to prove them wrong. Goss remembers catching sight of the Privateer on the ramp: "I grinned and thought about all the naysayers."

Piloting Tanker 121—this Privateer's firefighting handle for many years—is veteran air tanker pilot Boyd Gallaher. He remembers being called specifically to bring a Privateer to a fire when mountainous terrain inhibited the use of some other air tanker types. "Privateers were good in the mountains," Gallaher explains. "They always wanted me to come out because I could get into the smaller places."

What's in store for the evolving restoration and presentation of the last flying Privateer? Relaxing in the shade cast by the broad Davis wing at AirVenture, the team tosses around ideas: Maybe the installation of Plexiglas domes for the two Martin top turrets; what about a reversion to the original R-1830 engines and cowlings? But there's a reason Tanker 121 spent most of its working life with B-25 powerplants instead, and there's an argument for leaving them alone.

That's the charm of the Privateer and its devoted team. They're not in a hurry, and they're happy to share their one-of-a-kind flying bomber in an evolving set of bite-sized restoration steps. 

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