STRATFORD, Conn. — Charlie Vesterman retired after 34 years at Sikorsky Aircraft, but he has never lost his love of tinkering with airplanes.
That’s how he became one of the elder statesmen of a dedicated dozen or so volunteers at the Connecticut Air and Space Center in Stratford, quietly keeping the state’s aviation legacy aloft from a chilly building near the Sikorsky Airport and factory where many spent decades-long careers.
“Why do I come? There’s a lot of good food here,” Vesterman, a Navy and Army vet, joked when asked why he spends so much of his free time at the center.
“Seriously though, this is part of history.”
Three days a week, you can find the men at the museum, carefully crafting — sometimes from scratch using vintage blueprints — parts for the old planes and helicopters they are trying to return to their former luster. They may never fly again, but the aircraft will have the look and feel they sported in their glory days of combat and transport, even if it takes the men years to complete them.
Founded in 1998 by the late veteran state Sen. George “Doc” Gunther, the center works to honor the pioneers of early aviation, preserve the craft they flew and educate new generations about the state’s unique aviation history. It never enjoyed the hoopla that still surrounds North Carolina’s Wright Brothers, but Connecticut was home to both Bridgeport’s Gustave Whitehead, who many believe logged the first actual flight, and Igor Sikorsky, a pioneer in both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft who lived in Easton.
While they’ve packed their Sniffens Lane center with a treasure trove of planes and aviation memorabilia, the center’s volunteers are counting the days to some big changes in 2017.
They’re poised to go to bid to begin work on their latest acquisition: the so-called Curtiss Hangar. The shuttered 1929 space on the Sikorksy Airport property will become an annex and home to their 80-foot-long Sikorsky sky crane and their “baby,” the Sikorsky Memorial Corsair that once stood as a landmark outside the airport.
As it stands now, yon can see through the hangar’s old roof and it will need plenty of other work, said Mark Corvino, the center’s vice president.
“There’s a 98-year lease — and that’s probably how long it will take to fix it,” he joked. “But we’ve got big plans for that building.”
Renovations will begin in spring and the project will take roughly two years, Corvino said.
That’s no time at all to the men who’ve devoted so much time to keeping history alive across the street. They’re spurred on by the memory of friends past, such as Fairfield’s Bill Tigney, who was still stopping in until two months before his death at 92.
“I was the youngest over there and now I’m probably one of the oldest,” said Richie Jersey, a veteran who also worked at Sikorsky. “Those mechanics from Sikorsky? They were amazing. They could fix anything.”
A bit of family history brought Stamford resident Tim Benson to the center’s shop rooms: His father, a Navy pilot, flew a Corsair.
“He got me interested and it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “You’re always running into new challenges. That’s keeps you coming back.”
The Connecticut Air and Space Center is holding a Toys for Tots drive at the museum and at Stanziale’s Restaurant across the street. To learn more or to plan a visit, click on www.cascstratford.wordpress.com .