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Volunteers resurrect Cold War planes on shoestring budget

NASA allows aircraft enthusiasts to set up shop in WWII hangar

When Lou Somontes and his crew are done, several aircraft from the Cold War era will be restored and put on display next to the Moffett Field Museum in front of the iconic Hangar One.

Among the collection being restored is an F-18 that used to fly as one of the Blue Angels, a U2 spy plane that used to take pictures from high altitudes of Cuba and Russia during the 1960s, a Huey Cobra gunship helicopter used during the Vietnam War and a TF104G Starfighter once used as a test bed by NASA.

Retired Moffett Field Navy man Somontes speaks with enthusiasm about the project. "(It) keeps me out of trouble," he said.

He's joined in his efforts by several other retired Moffett Field employees, including retired Navy metal smith Bob Lombardi and Larry Salter, a former supervisor of a NASA U2 program that was once based at Moffett. The group calls itself the "aircraft wing" of the Moffett Field Museum, which is operated by the Moffett Field Historical Society.

Somontes' teenage granddaughter Jessica Vickers helps out too, along with a group of teenagers who have been happy to learn how to work on the planes.

Somontes spent his years as a crew member and mechanic on the plane most associated with the former Naval Air Station at Moffett, the P-3 Orion. The group spent months restoring a P-3 now parked in front of the flight control tower at Moffett. Dozens of holes had to be patched in its aluminum skin, which corrodes without proper care.

Dozens of P-3s flew in and out of Moffett on a daily basis through the 1990s, part of the Cold War practice of tracking Russian submarines in the Pacific Ocean.

"The whole idea was to try and find them and track them, particularly the 'boomers' -- the ones that had missiles," Somontes said.

Such submarine hunts were documented in the book "Hunt for Red October" -- the movie version left out the involvement of the P-3 Orion squadrons, Somontes noted.

"The Soviets had a lot of submarines," Somontes said. When located, a submarine would "try and avoid us as long as it could. Sometimes they didn't know we were watching them. It was a Cold War game. It was exciting when you got one."

Restoring such planes appears to be the perfect way for Somontes to spend is retirement.

"It's a lot of fun, hard work," Somontes said. "You have to think outside the box" in locating parts and doing repairs. If something can't found, it has to be made from scratch.

"We do all that. But the fun is in the hunt -- looking for this stuff."

Working inside Moffett Field's Hangar Three (with the blessing of owner NASA Ames) is a memorable experience in itself, Somontes said. Hangars Two and Three were constructed on the east side of the airfield out of wood in order to save steel during World War II, when they housed a fleet of blimps that escorted naval ships, spotting enemy submarines.

The group has spent $3,000 since the restorations began a year and half ago, mostly for materials and mostly coming from the group's own pockets. That's low, considering the costs of aircraft parts. The tow hook for the P-3 Orion that the group restored cost $17,000. Thankfully the tow hook was donated to the cause, along with many other parts, thanks to Somontes' "persistent, but not rude" approach.

"Quite often, I am asking, 'can you donate it to us?'" Somontes said.

The planes are not being restored to flight-worthy condition, just for display.

Right now the group is searching for tires for several of the planes, along with cockpit controls and instruments for the Huey Cobra helicopter. Controls and instruments are also missing from a Lockheed P-2 Neptune under restoration, once used to track Soviet submarines during the early days of the Cold War as the precursor of the P-3. This P-2 was parked at Moffett in the late 1970s, and Somontes believes the parts may have been stolen by thieves, which is not uncommon.

Somontes has created a network of people he can go to for the vintage aircraft parts, and Ebay also helps. But sometimes the trick is watching out for stolen parts. "I have a list of sources I have a lot of faith in and trust in." Somontes said.

The group is seeking volunteers and donations and can be reached at 408- 223-5969 or through the Moffett Field Museum at 650- 964-4024.

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