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Workshop aims to restore planes, preserve history

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Photo by Jenna Nyberg

When I stopped by the Aeroplane Workshop on the EAA grounds on Tuesday, I got much more than I was expecting. Not only did I get a full, one-on-one tour of the airplane restoration shed, but I also met some very kind and very passionate people along the way.
I was greeted warmly by John Whitelam, an elderly British man who flies into Oshkosh every year to volunteer at AirVenture. Whitelam gave me a brief overview of what was going on in the shed and introduced me to some specialists in different areas of the workshop. One of those people was my soon-to-be tour guide and Florida native, Deborah Van Treuren.
Van Treuren, who was working on smoothing the edges of metal pieces for a plane tail section, was happy to take a break from her job and show me around.
“Airplanes are made of just about anything,” she says. “Sheet metal, wood, fabric, you name it. And this is where it all comes together.”
Photo by Jenna Nyberg

Photo by Jenna Nyberg

Our first stop was the stitching area, where young volunteers were weaving intricate knots to adhere fabric to the wooden ribs of an airplane wing. The fabric was made sturdy via ironing and applying a special coating of chemicals.

The next area is where I was introduced to Jim Self, who Van Treuren describes as “a man with expert hands.” Self was working on tiny parts for airplane wings, proving that even the small things make a big difference when it comes to the proper construction of airplanes.

Self, like many others whom I had met and would soon meet, has been around AirVenture for quite some time, and clearly takes pride in the Aeroplane Workshop. “EAA stands for Experimental Aircraft Association,” he says. “Experimental. That’s what we do here. This is where it all started.”

Next, Van Treuren carefully led me around the dust cloud of a sanding station to an area with an old airplane frame. This is where I met Chuck Burtch, an AirVenture volunteer for more than 30 years. Burtch explained that the plane in front of me was an Aeronca TG-5 three-seat glider that dated back to WWII. “They were made in ’42,” he said. “They were used to teach the Army Air Corps before there was an Air Force.”

Unlike most other areas of the workshop, where volunteers were sawing wood, sanding metal and fastening knots, Burtch’s area seemed quite still. I asked him what his area was really all about.

“We’re just trying to preserve history,” he says.
As my tour of the Aeroplane Workshop came to an end, I made it a point to find Whitelam to say thank you for his initial help and guidance. After a lengthy conversation and a friendly hug goodbye, he asked me where he would be able to find the article that I told him I would be writing. I gave him the link to the website and he told me that he would have his son help him “get to the Internet” when he got home.

So John, if you’re reading this, I hope you enjoyed the rest of your week at AirVenture and had a safe flight back to England. See you next year!

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