Air Force reservist caretaker of Navy historical showpiece

  • Published
  • By Bobby Jones
  • 11th Wing Public Affairs
If you happen to drive past Naval Air Facility Washington on the east side of Joint Base Andrews, you may have noticed a vintage Grumman F6F-5K Hellcat aircraft mounted on a pylon adjacent the flight line entrance. The WWII Navy fighter aircraft which twirls freely from only three-knot gust winds has served proudly in its role as a historical show piece and weathervane for transient distinguished visitors and resident Sailors alike.

Adorned with kill ratios stamped on its side, the antique aircraft resembles a foot-soldier, marching back and forth guarding its post. During the day, curious onlookers may do a double take as they see what appears to be a pilot performing preflight checks inside the cockpit. As twilight approaches, the pilot continues to move under the glow of a well-lighted cockpit and running lights on the outside of the aircraft.
The mannequin is fully clothed in Navy uniform, with life-vest and authentic World War II aviation head gear and goggles, donated by a USS ARIZONA aircrew member. The touch of realism is compliments of Tech. Sgt. Daniel Glessner, a machinist/welder assigned to the 459th Maintenance Squadron since 2005.

"I've always had a love for military history and memorabilia, but I originally created the mannequin because I wanted to give the Hellcat aircraft a little more personality and give me a little bit of a challenge," said Glessner.

It was in the summer of 1994, while Glessner was working as a civilian machinist at the Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department's Air Frames 500 division, when he decided to add the human dimension to the Hellcat by fabricating the mannequin from miscellaneous spare parts during after hours, over a six-month period.Glessner's brain-child was named after his then five-month-old son, Brian, now 18.
During that time-frame Glessner also served as a Navy Reserve machinery repairman 1st class attached to Naval Air Station Keflavik 1066, Iceland.

"It was simple to integrate the mannequin' s power source to work when the Hellcat's running lights are turned on," said Glessner.The mannequin pilot originally wore the rank of Navy lieutenant, but through time has been promoted to the current rank of admirably Glessner.

Admiral Glessner's movements mimics a pilot performing preflight checks prior to takeoff, which includes him looking from left to center, pausing momentarily and dropping his head down to check the instrument panel gauges. His head then raises and turns right, while his arm is extended with the thumb up-wards, signaling, 'Birds Up.'

As the resident caretaker, Glessner also hand-built a timer which works in conjunction with the plane's Identification Friend or Foe Recognition lighting system. According to a Smithsonian Museum employee, the IFF system was originally used during WWII.
Aircraft flying over a friendly base would display blinking lights in a sequence code, identifying themselves as friend or foe. The sequence would change daily to keep the enemy from using the codes. The pilots had to switch to the codes manually to blink in a set sequence. The Hellcat's light sequence was set the look as it did during WWII.

The exhibit has drawn positive reviews from transient visitors at Naval Air Facility Washington, also known as the "Crossroads of the Navy."

"Many of our distinguished visitors to NAF Washington comment on our Hellcat static display aircraft, as it is right in front of our VIP terminal," said Capt. Randy Johnson, NAF Washington commanding officer. "As a WWII era aircraft, the Hellcat truly adds to the history and heritage of NAF Washington. And the life-like mannequin pilot, "Brian," who actually waves, and the way the aircraft pivots to fly into the wind is really impressive. The numerous volunteer hours put in by Tech Sgt. Daniel Glessner to keep up the mannequin and maintain our display as fully functional is very much appreciated."
To date, the Hellcat boasts the reputation of being the only aircraft in existence having the ability to turn and light up.

Glessner quickly noted he was not solely responsible for the plane's restoration. Fleet Reserve Center Mid-Atlantic, formerly Aircraft Intermediate Maintenance Department's (AIMD) Paraloft shop also played a key role in upgrading the condition of the aircraft's interior by reupholstering the leather pilot seats.
The AIMD Work Center 500 built a new canopy and wind screen by heating and molding Plexiglas to fit over the cockpit and wing lights. AIMD Work Center 500 members also restored the Hellcat's outer body by sanding, priming and repainting it with High Volume Low Pressure spray paint guns, borrowed from the 89th Airlift Wing. The environmentally friendly paint guns produced less overspray and a more direct application.

Glessner's future plans include upgrading Admiral Gesner's movements. "I want his chest, shoulders and torso to make more of a twisting motion to make him even more life-like. I also want him to lean forward and back," said Glessner.

Because of Glessner's earlier involvement in helping to restore and preserve the Hellcat's condition, his research led him to verify the aircraft had logged 38,328 flight hours. However, due to lost records, he was unable to identify its original pilot.

With long-term durability in mind, Glessner is working on creating a simpler mechanism to make the motor more maintenance free. Although Glessner's love of history has brought him notoriety throughout the local base community, he also reaps benefits by using the mannequin as a training tool to keep up his welding proficiency.

"Working on this project in my spare time has allowed me to document and maintain my welding proficiency. And because of my long-term relationship with Fleet Reserve Center Mid-Atlantic they allow me to use their weld shop, because our facility is currently under renovation. Over the years I've enjoyed the responses people give when they see the pilot, but I'm really glad that the Air Force and the Navy allow me to showcase a bit of military history." said Glessner.