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By Rob Wetterholt

Bureau Numbers stenciled on United States Navy aircraft are the keys to unlocking an aircraft’s history, a number that is meticulously tracked on paper, in logbooks and on museum placards as a reference point for pilots, mechanics and history buffs.

The United States Navy started using Bureau Numbers (BuNos) in 1911 to track ordering of aircraft; the first aircraft ordered by the Navy had a BuNo of “1.”  Today, there are more than 165,000 of these numbers, giving a rough idea of how many different types of aircraft the U.S. Navy has ordered since 1911.

Bureau Number 79683 belongs to a Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat fighter owned and operated by the Kalamazoo Air Zoo, formerly as a flying history exhibit, now as a beautifully polished museum display.

Sitting in a museum bristling with priceless aviation artifacts with names such as Corsair, Wildcat, Dauntless and Skyraider, the Hellcat is in a league of her own.  The aircraft has a wartime resume that no other airplane can match.  The Hellcat was the most victorious air-to-air combatant in the Pacific.  Having shot down more than 5,200 Japanese aircraft while losing only 270 of their own, the Hellcat’s exchange rate of 19:1 remains unbeaten today.

The life and times of 79683

The cockpit of 79683 is a compilation of dials, knobs, switches and gauges that control everything attached to the Hellcat: the massive radial engine, the six machine guns in the wings, the sturdy landing gear, the folding wings that save space aboard ship, the distinguishable tail hook that snags a wire when landing on the aircraft carrier. 

79683 was stricken from the Navy’s inventory in 1959 and sold for scrap in April 1961 for $869.42.  The end of 79683 appeared imminent until John Ortseifen purchased her and moved her to the Chicago area, where she sat until 1978.  Ortseifen intended the plane to be used as a civilian, high-altitude photo-surveying platform.  In this new role, 79683 sat outside and endured harsh Midwest winters and sweltering summers. 

By 1979, 79683 was in tough shape.  She had been driven very hard and put away soaking wet.  Her fabric control surfaces were beginning to rot, her paint was destroyed and it appeared as though her life would soon end in the hands of a metal recycler. 

79683’s fate seemed all but certain until two things happened in 1979.  First, Chicagoland Airport was sold to a developer who was planning on shutting down the airport and installing a shopping mall on the property.  Second, Preston Parrish from Kalamazoo, the founder of the Air Zoo, was seeking to add a Hellcat to his growing collection of World War II aircraft; 79683 fit the bill perfectly and was sold to Parrish and trucked to the Air Zoo.

79683 was restored to airworthy condition in 18 months by a team of restoration experts.  The aircraft was quick to gain attention in Kalamazoo, since a critical piece of U.S. aviation history had found a home in one of the nation’s premier aviation museums as a flying exhibit.  79683 was meticulously restored and in 1981 was recognized at the Experimental Aircraft Association airshow in Oshkosh, Wisc. when she received the prestigious Grand Champion Warbird award.

With all of the dials, knobs, switches and gauges that controlled every facet of operation on the Hellcat faithfully restored to working order, 79683 was given a new lease on life and a home in Kalamazoo.

Keeping 79683 alive and well

Greg Ward has been working with the Air Zoo since 1988.  He knows the aircraft there better than anyone else.

Operating a warbird that was manufactured in 1945 in plain view of the public is no small task.  Progressive maintenance and annual inspections have to be performed on time and with careful attention to detail.

“There is a tremendous sense of responsibility not only to the machine, but to the museum itself,” Ward said.

Ward follows checklists that involve everything from torqueing the cylinder bolts to checking for leaks. As a result of this meticulous care, the Hellcat has never had a major crash or accident while under his careful supervision.

Once a year, the Air Zoo used to have an airshow.  “High On Kalamazoo” was the name of the event and tens of thousands of people would flock to the airport; the Air Zoo would put on a display of aviation history with its flying collection centered on the war-winning F6F Hellcat.

With the museum’s collection of aircraft pushed out into the summer sunlight once a year at the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport, 79683 was always one of the most popular aircraft at the show, Ward said.

The most touching aspect of the Kalamazoo airshows was a demonstration called “The Cat Flight,” something that was unique to Air Zoo airshows and something that has never been replicated in shows anywhere in the country.

The Cat Flight

Bretten Bailey, 22, remembers the “High On Kalamazoo” airshows very well.

With shows on Saturday and Sunday, Bailey could hear aircraft arriving for the show as early as Wednesday; his home being located directly underneath the approach path for one of the airport’s runways.

With the airport parking spaces jammed full of airplanes by Friday afternoon, Bailey could count on a weekend full of fun with family, friends and an airfield full of historic aircraft.

During the show, Bailey’s favorite performance was “The Cat Flight.” 

One by one, the Air Zoo’s contingent of Grumman aircraft would line up on the runway and takeoff, their propellers gnashing the summer sky as they clawed for altitude.  Following these historic aircraft’s departure, a modern day Grumman F-14 Tomcat would take center stage and thunder off the runway.

Prior to the formation flybys, Bailey remembered 79683 doing a few passes in front of the crowd and it always appeared more agile than it should have been. 

“Seeing it fly, there was a definite ‘WOW!’ factor,” Bailey said. 

Joining up with the rest of the aircraft, already in formation but out of the public’s view, the Hellcat would slide into position and the aerial cavalcade of Grumman ‘Cats would fly in front of the crowd.

Today, there are no ‘Cat Flights.  Some of the Grumman aircraft that the museum owned that participated in the demonstrations years ago have been sold.  The Air Zoo’s collection of airworthy aircraft is no longer flown.

79683 stands in a new museum, nestled, wingtip to wingtip, between a Goodyear Corsair and a Grumman Wildcat.

Bailey still gets a thrill every time he’s in the museum and lays eyes on 79683.  

“We’re losing World War II vets,” Bailey said.  “Keeping the aircraft tells their stories.”

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