- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 27, 2014

EVERETT, Wash. (AP) - Pete Graven got hooked on aviation as a young boy, listening to stories from his uncle, a WWI fighter pilot.

Jim Jackson was among the first mechanics to work on the B-29 bomber during WWII.

Norm Constan spent nearly four decades with the Boeing Co., delivering airplanes.

Now, in their golden years, these volunteers spend a day or two a week at Paine Field, fixing up vintage aircraft at the Museum of Flight Restoration Center. Many are well into their 80s. The oldest is 99.

“The people here have just as many interesting stories as the aircraft they’ve worked on,” said Tom Cathcart, the museum’s director of aircraft collections. “It’s just as much about the guys out here working as the aircraft the museum ends up putting on display. The aircraft is getting a second life, but some of these guys are, too.”

The restoration center opened at Paine Field about 30 years ago. In 1988, the center moved into the two hangars it now occupies near Airport Road. These days, it’s one of several historic aircraft attractions at the Snohomish County Airport, which also hosts the Future of Flight, the Flying Heritage Collection and the Historic Flight Foundation.

The restoration center is no dark, dingy workshop. It’s open to the public most days of the week. Adult admission costs $5.

Walk inside, and you’ll see about two-dozen aircraft. There are immaculate specimens - and others that look like they barely escaped the scrap heap.

The collection includes a restored F2G-1 Super Corsair, a fighter built by Goodyear Aircraft Corp., near the end of WWII. There’s also a nearly display-ready Chance Vought XF8U-1 Crusader, the first-ever example of a legendary jet that hit Mach 1 - breaking the sound barrier - during its initial flight in 1955. The Crusader went on to enjoy remarkable longevity, with the last one retired from service in 2000 by the French Navy. Elsewhere, you can spy jumbles of raw machinery: radial and V12 engines alongside some of the jet propulsion systems that replaced them.

A Lockheed Jetstar from 1957 still conjures up the magic of the early jet age, even without paint or much of an interior. A silver, banana-shaped U.S. Air Force helicopter built in 1951 by Piasecki Aircraft Corp. sits out back like a classic car on blocks.

Need a tour guide? There’s bound to be somebody nearby who didn’t merely study history, but lived it.

“The tourists say, ‘It’s great to come in and talk to you guys,’” said Pete Graven, 86, of Bellevue, a retired mechanical engineer who spent his career selling heavy equipment for General Electric.

Graven has been volunteering 24 years - “without pay” - he adds. He got started as a docent at the Museum of Flight’s main facility in Seattle, then found his way north to the restoration center.

Graven said he acquired his love of aviation as a boy in Chicago. His “whiskey-drinking uncle” would tell him stories of flying fighter planes during WWI and rubbing shoulders with some of the most famous aces of the day.

Graven got his pilot license in 1961, but it was a hobby, not a profession. These days, he leads a small crew fixing up a Pratt-Read PR-G1 Glider, a light, engineless aircraft that seats two.

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