Mechanic keeping history of warbirds alive

The high desert may be an unlikely refuge for gigantic Navy Albatross sea planes.

With its arid climate and landlocked geography, Carson City and its dusty airport seem like the last place you would see the 1950s-era showboats, but they are here.

Many of the Albatrosses that continue to fly depend on Dennis Buehn and his specialized skills to stay healthy and stay in the air.

The Dayton resident owns American Warplanes, a restoration company housed in a large hangar at the Carson City Airport. He is the self-described president, CEO, mechanic and janitor of a niche business rebuilding some of the Navy's largest historical aircraft.

"My father was the chief of police of Avalon (Calif.), and I grew up on Catalina Island working on the sea planes as a baggage boy," Buehn said. "I would do anything just to get a ride."

By the time Buehn reached his teen years, the flying bug was fully entrenched in his psyche. While a student at Long Beach City College, he bought his first airplane, a Stinson L-5 "Sentinel," for $300 from a Los Angeles man who had let it fall by the wayside in his backyard.

With an enthusiasm that continues to drive him 35 years later, Buehn restored the 1940s-era Air Force reconnaissance and delivery airplane, and taught himself to fly.

The original wooden propeller, which proved to be too decrepit for proper restoration, hangs on Buehn's office wall. It was the first of hundreds of restorations Buehn would make starting in the '60s and continuing to present day.

Visitor's to the airport cafe or fire station undoubtedly notice the collection of Albatrosses anchored on the Tarmac. They don't look like typical Pipers and Cessnas.

Because of a design allowing the plane to take off and land on water, the belly looks like the hull of a large ski boat. It seems to hang down, and when one of these planes is parked with landing gear down, the belly sits just inches above the ground.

The cockpit is perched above a long nose, and the relatively short wing (many of which were modified for greater air agility and lift) sits like a "T" over the cabin. The huge engines are perched mid-wing.

While Buehn owns a few of the classics, most of the Albatrosses hanging around the American Warbirds hangar belong to clients, who have come to depend on him as one of the last Albatross experts.

"Since there were 464 built (By Grumman between 1948-1959) over the years, I've found out where the spares are and how to get parts," Buehn said. Now only a handful continue to fly, most of which have passed through Buehn's hands.

Like a contractor building a house on speculation, Buehn has taken many airplanes out of retirement from the military's boneyard in Tucson, Ariz., overhauled and sold them to one of the many buyers.

On Friday, Buehn and two shop mechanics were changing an engine on a revived Albatross. The job, Buehn predicted, would take less than a day because of the simplistic Grumman design that allowed fast and easy maintenance by military mechanics.

"It was the best," Buehn said, referring to the Albatross's far-reaching capabilities, which included a range of 2,400 nautical miles. "This plane did search and rescue, and utility work all over the world.

"She was a real globetrotter."

Buehn's introduction to the Albatross came during a former life as a Navy pilot. From 1968-1972 he was stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and flew in service of the American embassy.

Buehn returned to Southern California and started a family, and has two daughters, Christy, 23, and Jenny, 21, who are pursuing college educations.

Looking to escape the rat race of Los Angeles life, Buehn moved to Dayton, and set up shop at the Carson City airport. As a professional airplane mechanic, Buehn first specialized in the T-6 Texan, which happened to represent a class in the Reno Air Races where he would compete.

With a familiarity of the area, and the obvious local enthusiasm for flying, Northern Nevada was a good fit for Buehn and his wife, Laura, who also helps run the business. From the hundreds of restorations he has been involved in with a variety of classic military aircraft, Buehn's office walls are filled with pictures and aircraft artifacts.

With only a handful of the classic Albatrosses still flying, Buehn's work is keeping military history alive.

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