Tom Reilly's Flying Tigers Warbird Restoration Museum, Kissimmee, Florida
Another Tom, this one McGhee, looks at a thriving restoration centre in the USA
This small museum and restoration outfit is situated just south of the popular tourist area of Orlando, Florida, and is slightly overshadowed by the mighty tourist attractions like Sea World, Universal, and the Disney Theme Parks. However, a visit to this location at Kissimmee Municipal Airport is certainly worthwhile (as long as you are not overly worried by snakes!).
Besides a small shop which features a selection of aviation related memorabilia as well as the usual assortment of books, videos and patches, etc., the main aviation interests are in three areas: the hangar, the flightline, and the scrap area.
Our visit began with a tour of the main hangar that contained a treasure trove of unusual exhibits in various stages of restoration. Our extremely knowledgeable tour guide regaled us with great anecdotes as well as factual information about the aircraft present, and his passion about aviation was evident and added immensely to the visit.
Among the highlights of the hangar included a FW190, which is under long-term restoration to flying condition. This aircraft was recovered from a Norwegian Fjord where it had laid since the Second World War after being attacked by British P-51 Mustangs. The aircraft was the personal mount of the Squadron Commander but was being flown by another pilot whilst the CO was away from the base, the hope being that a quick overflight of a German warship followed by a clean up and then parked back in the hangar would leave him none the wiser. Unfortunately the RAF had other ideas and as the pilot attempted to abandon his boss's stricken fighter his flare gun accidentally fired, burning the cockpit and parachute. Finally escaping at 300 feet he plunged to the ground as his aircraft hit the water, miraculously surviving his plummet into the deep soft snowy slope. Presumably the CO was wishing the pilot dead, but he still survives to this day.
The restorers here pay such attention to detail that they even go to the extent of using German rivets in the rebuild, rather than 'rusty old American rivets' (sic). The hope is that after successful restoration to flying condition the aircraft will be worth many millions of dollars, justifying the time and funds necessary to make such a rare example airworthy again.
Another hangar resident is a Fouga CM170 Magister (N5040M) painted in the colours of the Israeli Defence Force/Air Force marked as '73'. A late model MiG-21 of dubious origin is painted in a Soviet Air Force camouflage scheme (52 yellow), and was moved here from Miami after a neighbour complained about its presence in the owners garden, how it got to Miami in the first place is unknown.
A couple of B-17 Flying Fortresses are present in the hangar, one of which (the ex-Atomic Test photo ship 'Suzy Q') amazingly escaped serious damage in the hurricane which devastated Homestead a few years ago. Minor damage to the tail section and the stripping of the majority of the Olive Drab paint finish were the only significant effects caused by the unscheduled two-minute 'flight'. Most of the rest of the aviation collection at Homestead suffered extensive damage caused by the collapse of the building which housed them, whereas the externally parked B-17 was just dumped back on its wheels a few hundred yards away by the hurricane. The other B-17 in the hangar (44-85734) is another major restoration project, and despite the vast majority of the aircraft being constructed from scratch, a few significant components from the original airframe are still incorporated (including the all important Data Block).
Other major hangar residents include a hybrid Yak-3/11 (N134US) modified as a racer, a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter (60813), Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, Grumman US-2B Tracker (136534) and De Havilland Vampire (NX100VJ). Outside to the 'scrap' area and beware of those snakes I mentioned earlier which reside here in the grass and bushes. Five of the original ten A-4 Skyhawks obtained a few years ago are still sectioned here as well as a T-28B fuselage (137678) and numerous other bits and pieces.
The flightline area has a couple of sunshades which house SNJ-6s (otherwise known as Harvards or T-6 Texans) including 112049 and 112129 which are used to take willing tourists up for joyrides ($500 for half an hour at the controls). Tom Reilly has restored more B-25 Mitchell light bombers than anyone else, and examples of them were present included 44-30734 'Panchito' and N62163 'Killer B'.
More modern hardware is present in the form of a Grumman F-9F Panther, a North American F-100 Super Sabre, F-101A Voodoo and a LTV A-7 Corsair, whilst for F-4 fans the tail cone of USN 148369 lies alongside a USAF Phantom fuselage. One of the more unusual exhibits is the British built P.1127/Kestrel prototype V/STOL aircraft (the Harrier's immediate predecessor), and to finish off, a USN SH-34J (148030) and USArmy OH-58A (70-15519) complete the lineup.
Overall, a nice little collection where you can actually smell the hydraulic fluid and see the restoration process. The extremely knowledgeable and courteous staff are a great asset - just don't wear flip-flops!