TWA’s Modification Center

Posted 03/09/04

By Keith Horton

Sometime in mid-summer of 1942, five or six brand new C-54’s landed at Kansas City Municipal Airport (MKC) and ended up parked on the ramp in front of our hangar at 10 Richards Road. All of a sudden, TWA was in the modification business for the Army Air Corps.

Now, more than 60 years later, I’m having to dig really deep into my cranial wrinkles to relate some of the modification activities back then. I can’t bring up the names of many of the people but I can remember what they looked like. Some details and/or dates are pretty fuzzy, so if any readers out there can fill me in on some details or offer some corrections, I’d appreciate it.

I came to work at TWA as a Maintenance Engineer in September 1941, along with two others -- Jack McAnulty and Joe Phister. We worked under Dick Sullivan on shop and hangar equipment and procedures. We were to be routed through all the shops, the hangar and placed on the line as "apprentice mechanics" after about a month at each place. After the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, some of our plans had to be changed and I found myself assigned directly to shop and equipment projects.

The Maintenance Department was under Bill Maxfield and he reported to Pat Gallup, who was head of Operations/Maintenance. I remember a few people that were reporting to Bill. "Cal" Calhoun was Bill’s assistant, Frank Jacques was in charge of Inspection, J.C. Kamm was in Maintenance Training, Chuck Schwaneke kept the books, a Mr. Valentine kept track of the engines in the fleets of DC-2s, DC-3s and Boeing 307s that TWA was operating at that time.

Ralph Litchenberger was the foreman of the Sheet Metal Shop, and Guy van Skike was in the Engine Overhaul Shop with "Shorty" Formsby as assistant. Keith Kay was in the Radio and Electric Shop with Art Stubbs. Bill Dahnke was in the Instrument Shop with Al Jordan, and Ben Kelly was in the Hydraulics Shop. "Oley" Olson, I believe, was in charge of the hangar and the Upholstery and Fabric Shop was located in downtown Kansas City on Wyandotte, at about Tenth Street.

Now, back to those C-54 aircraft. After the flight crews deplaned one of them asked what we were going to do with the "IFF" radios. That term was a mystery to us and we soon found out that IFF stood for "Identification – Friend or Foe". Further, we were advised that those radios, officially known as SCR 535, were very secret and would have to be kept in a very secure area while the airplanes were there for the modification work, and a secure area didn’t mean just a locked office or room.

The only acceptable place we could find was a vault on the second floor of the office area just a few doors down from John Collings’ office. Some of the accounting and treasury people were very disturbed "just because of a few damned old radios" when they found they were going to have to make some shelf space available in their vault. Furthermore, the door had to remain locked all the time those radios were in there and they wouldn’t be allowed to freely enter and leave what had been "their" vault. When the radios were removed from the airplanes, each one had to be specially tagged to assure it would go back into the proper airplane. In addition, a careful recording of the serial numbers of all the units also was required.

The modifications consisted of installing some provisions for additional communication and navigation equipment. New wire bundles had to be made up and a series of benches were set up on the hangar floor. As I recall, some of the new wire bundles had to reach all the way from the cockpit to the tail so they had to be quite long. I was a Mechanical Engineer and I still don’t understand how they could string all those wires, each one appropriately identified, and also get them into the proper pins or sockets of the connectors, but those guys in the Radio and Electric Crew, supervised by Keith Kay and Art Stubbs, were professionals and knew their jobs. That’s probably why TWA was selected to do this work for the Air Force.

Those C-54’s were using a lot of needed ramp space out in front of the hangar, so some were moved across the south end of the north-south runway, and over west toward the old Goebel Building. We found ourselves with quite a bit of work on our hands in addition to the modifications because the fuel tanks on every one of them were leaking badly. A service specialist from Douglas had come on the airplanes and he told us that the airplanes were some of the first that Douglas had produced with integral fuel tanks (no bladder linings) and that the leakages would have to be stopped. So, TWA had its first experience with integral tanks and much experience with the zinc chromate paste that was used to seal the leaks. We later had many more similar experiences with integral tanks and leaks with the arrival of the 049 Constellations.

It took a week or two to accomplish the modifications, and to get the fuel leaks stopped up and the airplanes ready to fly away. The TWA "number-crunchers" were happy when they saw us taking those "damned old radios" out of their vault.

About two weeks later, some Douglas A-20B two-engine medium bombers began to show up until we had ten or twelve of them, and we had to park them across the runway in the field behind the Goebel building. They had been ferried up from the Douglas plant in either Tulsa or Oklahoma City. They also had the SCR-535 IFF radios that had to be kept in safe storage in the second floor vault, after space made for another batch of those "damned old radios." Some modifications were made to the communication and navigations systems, which were accomplished quickly, after which the planes were ferried away to Great Britain and then to the African theater.

We then learned that still more A-20B’s were headed our way to for more extensive modifications, and H.W. "Hy" Crowther was brought in from his position as head of Line Maintenance at LaGuardia to head up the Maintenance part of these modification efforts. He later brought dear old Ben Hart from back east to serve as the foreman in charge of the work. With the arrival of the first of this new gaggle of A-20B’s, an Air Corps Representative met with us to talk over the modifications that were to be done.

There were several large jobs. One was to remove the bomb release controls from the nose compartment and move them up to the cockpit for the pilot to operate. The airplane was to be converted to a "Skip Bomber" with pilot-operated bomb release controls. This would require a new aiming device to be mounted in the cockpit for the pilot to use.

Another modification was centered on the aft gunner’s station. There was a rear-facing machine gun mounted on a semi-circular machine gun track that apparently was not satisfactory, and the modification order called for a straight track to be installed across the rear of the station. The covering over the station would slide forward, but even in this forward position it interfered with the movements of the gunner. In addition, the slipstream back there was so strong it was difficult to operate and aim the gun, so a modification was needed to allow the cover to slide forward into position, but the aft portion of the cover had to be lifted up and locked into place to provide a "windshield" for the gunner. This may be hard to visualize, but that’s what was called for.

So, we got the chief metal man from the hangar, Homer Monroe, and he and I and the Air Force Rep. got together and talked over just how those modifications should be made. It took about a week for Homer and me to work out the details, and for Homer and others in Ralph Litchenberger’s metal shop to make up the parts for the modifications and get them installed. The relocation of the bomb release controls to the cockpit weren’t very difficult, requiring mostly some new push-pull rods with appropriate rod ends and brackets and change-of-directions cranks.

The new machine gun track in the aft gunner’s station was more difficult because it required some 1x3" high strength 4130 chrome-moly steel that wasn’t readily available; however, Red Reynard in Purchasing found some for us. The new brackets to hold that new track were somewhat of a puzzle, however, as we didn’t know what the reaction from firing the machine gun would be, so we just made up some strong Left and Right brackets that were built to a TWA standard we called, "Hell for Stout."

The modification of the cover over the rear station would require the gunner to lift it up and lock it in the upper position, probably while in-flight, and I was a bit concerned that it might be too difficult for the gunner to get it in position against a 200 or 250 mile-per-hour air stream. Any way, we worked out all the details and got the first airplane modified, and then called the Air Corps Rep. over to check it out and seek his approval. He was pleased with our work, with one or two minor adjustments that were easily fixed.

We didn’t make any drawings of the work or the parts, but had kept careful notes and sketches of the parts that had to be made for modifications of the other airplanes, and kept TWA’s photographer pretty busy making photographs of all the parts details and work. In the meantime, more airplanes were arriving until we had at least fifteen of them parked west of the runway.

I figured out a bill of materials for the whole job, and took it up to Red Reynard in Purchasing who got right to work to obtain all that we needed. Getting enough of the 4130 chrome-moly steel bars was difficult and he finally located enough of it on the West Coast. But there was a problem getting it to us quickly, as the bars were much too long to fit into the cargo bins of the DC-3’s we were then flying. Our straightforward solution was to tie two or three bars down in the aisle of the passenger cabin and we got them delivered that way.

While all this was going on, new pilot-operated bomb sights had to be manufactured from a sample that the air Force provided, and this was capably done in the Instrument Shop under the guidance of Bill Dahnke, the shop foreman, and Al Jordan, the assistant foreman.

When the airplanes arrived, the machine guns were removed and taken into a shop for preservation and security, and reinstalled just before departure when all the mod work was finished. Our Air Corps Rep. had never flown an A-20B and was anxious to fly the first one that was all modified and ready, and I wanted to go along in the aft cockpit to see if our sliding cover could be raised in flight. I wasn’t allowed to make that flight, as TWA did not have any insurance to cover me. It was a good thing I didn’t go, as on that first flight there was an engine failure on take-off and they barely avoided crashing.

As I recall, all of this group of airplanes was picked up by pilots of the 40th Bombardment Squadron, and they headed south to cross the Atlantic from Brazil to the western hump of Africa, and then on up to the battle going on in the Sahara Desert. I often wondered how those modifications worked out and held up in combat.

The work on the A-20B’s continued on through the last part of 1942 and into the early months for 1943, and it proved to be very difficult doing some of it out in the open during Missouri’s winter weather. Plans were being made to start some modifications on B-25s, and a hangar was being constructed farther west, along the south end of the airport. By working with some paper cut-outs of those airplanes, we worked out a plan where we could get ten airplanes into the new hangar -- two long rows of five airplanes, each line with their wing tips interspersed, requiring very careful control and management when the lines were moved forward. I don’t remember the total number of airplanes we worked, but it must have been at about 125 -- all without any damage, we were proud to note.

The hangar was one of those WWII buildings constructed of corrugated sheet metal, and while the roof shed the rain quite well, the sides were very drafty when a strong wind was blowing. In fact, snow often drifted inside. There was a "lean-to" type extension on the south side where the offices and stock room were located. A lot of paperwork was involved in keeping track of the work done to the airplanes, so Mr. Crowther brought Joe Harbison in from Pittsburg to help with that work. Bill Brenner was in charge of the stock room and that included a GFE (Government Furnished Equipment) stock allocation, as well as the TWA stock room. I can’t recall the names of some of the TWA people that were prominent in the hangar work, with the exception of John Shepard.

The B-25’s were manufactured at the North American plant on the Fairfax Airport, just a couple of miles north of MKC. TWA’s overhaul base (KCOB), was located at Fairfax Airport a few years later. The parts needed for the modifications and the engineering drawings for the work, were finished by North American. I had to serve as the "go between" when problems arose.

The airplanes came to us fully packed with machine guns installed and cartons for other things such as engine covers, etc. All these things had to be unpacked from the airplanes and stored and carefully re-packed into the appropriate airplane when it was ready to leave. It was necessary to remove the machine guns and there was a shop tucked into the northwest corner of the hangar, where rust-proof preservation measures were applied to them, with this "goo" removed before the airplanes left. Modifications also were made to communications and navigations systems to suit the particular missions the airplanes were destined to perform.

In addition to the modification work, we had to correct any flight "squawks" that might be in the logbook, and this involved considerable engine work with outside run-ups. There was one sad incident where a mechanic was killed when he walked into the propeller of an operating engine. There was another incident one weekend when I was in charge, when a mechanic inadvertently serviced a main gear shock strut with oxygen. All the servicing hoses and fixtures were supposed to have threaded fittings that would not permit a nitrogen-servicing fixture to be connected to a high pressure oxygen bottle, but he somehow got oxygen into the shock strut. There was concern, of course, about the possible reaction of the oxygen and the oil in the shock strut, but we were able to get the oxygen/nitrogen mixture released from the shock strut without any trouble.

In late 1943, we received some B-25G and H airplanes that were to be modified for use by the Russians. They didn’t want very much done as they were anxious to get the airplanes. Most of the work consisted of installing extra insulation in the radio compartment, the installation of some extra armor plate and some cold weather modifications. The Russian representative, Major I. Sobolev, was good to work with and very appreciative of our help. By the way, those B-25’s for the Russians had forward-firing 75mm cannon installed in the front belly, and thank goodness we didn’t have to take any of those out for preservation.

The work on the Russian B-25’s completed the TWA’s modification efforts for the Air Corps. I departed for military duty about a month or two later, and I don’t recall whatever became of the corrugated hangar we slapped together.

All modified airplanes had a test flight before they were turned over to the Air Corps, and I’m pretty sure most of the A-20’s were tested by whoever was TWA’s Chief Pilot at that time. The Air Corps Rep. and W.T. Vance of TWA tested many of the B-25’s, and I was thrilled to frequently ride in the co-pilot seat with Vance. There were a few instanceses when two planes were in the air at the same time, and the pilots had a ball trying to maneuver to get on the tail of the each other.

Those B-25’s were great airplanes, and quite agile.

Keith Horton, 1941-1983, served in Maintenance/Tech Services – Engineering and Field Maintenance, Kansas City.

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