PICTOU – Taking down a trainer fighter jet for Todd Vassallo was like high-jumping without a trampoline – or flying the real thing for the first time.
“It’s terrifying,” he said last week as he planned to dismantle and remove the 1950s-era T-33 military aircraft and its pedestal from its accustomed site near the Pictou Rotary last Thursday. It has been transferred to a storage area in town and is anticipated to return after a new roundabout is completed and the surrounding ground is remediated.
It will be stored in sections in the compound at Construction Engineering Flight (CEF) 144 Pictou.
“The whole thing is to get it down in a day,” he said.
Vassallo began his work aboard a boom lift at about 8 a.m., while Tom Fraser with T. Fraser Crane from Trenton moved his truck into position to lift the plane off its pedestal by mid-morning.
Fraser said he has previously lifted aircraft and was ready for the job.
CEF advisory board chairman Lawrence LeBlanc, who located the plane in Trenton, Ont. and had it brought to Pictou and installed in 2003, eagerly watched the process.
“We did not pay five cents for it. All the CEF did was to build the base and all the town had to pay for was the cement,” he said.
Flight 144 commanding officer, Lt. Marc Therien, said Vassallo had the designs and instructions he needed to move the plane.
“We tried to help as much as we could with schematics and photos of when it went up,” he said.
Vassallo is from Sydney Forks, N.S. but he has lived in Pictou County for 23 years. He worked for 17 years at the Nova Scotia Museum before going out on his own.
He and his son Caulier were busy last week completing their work on several cradles that parts of the aircraft will rest on while it’s in storage. Caulier was spray-painting the steel structures to reduce weather damage.
One large cradle will hold the fuselage, a smaller one will be for the wings and the smallest one will hold the fuel pods located on the end of the wings.
The plane was attached to four pipes on top of the pedestal. One of them was severed from corrosion, leaving LeBlanc and others to marvel how the plane did not tumble to the ground long ago. Vassallo used a blow torch to sever the pipes and the bolts while the plane was partly suspended.
Rising southwest winds prompted Vassallo to have Fraser tie the plane to the crane truck so it wouldn’t swing before and during its lift.
Tires were strategically placed for the fuselage to rest on after it was moved to the ground so Vassallo could remove the wings.
Vassallo has plenty of experience building and mounting aircraft. This disassembly is a first for him. He built a two-third-scale replica of the Silver Dart airplane that was the first aircraft to fly in the British Empire in 1909. The replica was done for Stanfield International Airport, where it is now located.
He also built a quarter-scale replica of a PBYS Canso heavy haul plane.
“I’ve put up airplanes,” he said. “Taking things down, I haven’t done yet.”
S. W. Weeks Construction is building the new roundabout and approaches and will later flatten the surrounding land for future use, including retail. The jet has to come down for the company to do that.
Vassallo was aware that part of the contract was to take down the jet and agreed to do the job.
“I know some of the people with Weeks,” he said. “They knew what I’ve done in the past and because it’s an artifact it fits into my realm. No matter who had the (construction) job, it would be part of the process.”
The jet will eventually return to one of four locations LeBlanc is considering for the plane. He is chairman of the advisory board for the CEF. He said it would be premature to reveal their preferred option.
Watch a video of the dismantling: www.pictouadvocate.com