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Restoring aviation history, plane by plane

By Staff
RESTORATION n David Phillips peers into the cockpit of a 1953 Piper Tripacer. Phillips restores antique planes and is currently working to revive the classic aircraft.Ben Alexander/The Meridian Star.
By Ben Alexander/The Meridian Star
April 7, 2001
David Phillips views aircrafts of the past in much the same light a wine connoisseur might see a vintage selection.
Both improve with age.
Phillips, service manager for Key Bros. Flying Service, has spent the last 25 years giving new life to antique aircraft that others might have left in the junk yard.
A lost art …
Phillips learned to fly while training as a pilot at Naval Air Station Meridian. Later, he received his aircraft mechanic's license and got hooked on rebuilding planes.
Wornout planes sometimes can show up in the most unlikely of places. For instance, the Tripacer had been sitting in a barn for years with the wings off. Its new owner hired Key Bros and Phillips to restore it.
Time is not the only enemy of an older plane.
Phillips starts by peeling the plane down to its steel skeleton. Using what other pilots call "a lost art," Phillips reconstructs sections with a polyfiber covering process used before sheet metal became the standard.
History …
Long hours work aren't new work standards at Key Bros. When the Meridian airport first opened in the 1930s, the same hanger where Phillips works played a major role in aviation history. It was the homebase of the Key brothers, Al and Fred, who set a world record for hours spent in flight.
In 1935, thanks to the ingenuity of their longtime mechanic, A.D. Hunter, the brothers made special modifications on an airplane in order to refuel in midflight. The brothers and Hunter constructed a walkway around the front of their aircraft, the Ole Miss, to allow a man to grasp a refueling hose that dangled from another plane nearby. When the experimental flight finally ended, the Key brothers had flown 27 days straight without landing, refueling an unbelievable 432 times.
Nearly 70 years have since passed. Still, anyone visits the terminal today might think they have stepped back in the past. Meridian native Gil Carmichael, who leases the buildings, commissioned work to have them restored as a tribute to the Key brothers' efforts.
The terminal and hanger are listed on state's historical register, and the Key brothers' record-breaking plane still sits at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
Working at such a historic place isn't lost on Phillips.
Ben Alexander is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. E-mail him at balexander@themeridianstar.com.

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