ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Jake Benko is accustomed to shining up hot rods, but last week he turned his skills to cleaning and polishing some of the great airplanes of American history.
Benko, 25, owner of Hot Rod’s Detailing in Salisbury Township, was part of the 56-member Air Force One Detailing Team that went to work on planes at the Museum of Flight south of Seattle.
The hand-selected team gave special nose-to-tail attention to the first jet-powered Air Force One, a Boeing 707 that flew Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.
“It’s just really cool to be right there and touching a piece of history,” Benko said during a Thursday work break. “Air Force One is the ultimate treasure piece here that we all get to touch, and it’s looking real good right now.”
For his part, Benko was called on to apply his handheld electric polisher and its pads to the white and sky blue aircraft. The job took some muscle, he said.
“It’s definitely taxing on the body,” he said. “A lot of the time, you’re working on the undersides of planes with polishers. That’s a lot of labor. If you can detail Air Force One, working on a car looks pretty easy.”
He said the team also cleaned and polished a retired Concorde supersonic plane, a B-29 bomber from World War II and other artifacts of air history.
Ted Huetter, spokesman for the Museum of Flight, said the detailers seemed to be everywhere last week on the museum’s property in Tukwila, Wash.
“It looks like a military operation,” Huetter said. “They’re all dressed in the black shirts of the Air Force One Detailing Team. They seem to work in teams of three, and they do it in a synchronized way.
“Someone calls out, ‘Left, up, right.’ It’s choreographed, and that’s how they eliminate any chance of unevenness in their buffing.”
The detailing work is done once a year at the Museum of Flight by a crew chosen by master auto and aircraft detailer Renny Doyle of Big Bear, Calif.
“Basically our group is a giant family and we have fun together,” Benko said. “It’s completely volunteer. We all closed our businesses down for a week to do this. It’s just an honor to come out here and work on pieces of history.”
Because historical accuracy has the highest priority, the detailing team is directed not to change the aircraft paint, but to clean it and apply clear coatings that help bring out colors already there.
“After you put a polisher to it, the paint just has a shine to it and a lot more clarity,” Benko said. “We want to keep them as original as possible. We’re here to take what’s on that plane and make it look its absolute best.”
The detailers also removed tarnish from the large metallic surfaces of Air Force One. Benko said the tarnish collects throughout the year, which is why the annual detailing is needed.
Huetter said he was astonished at how the detailers had brightened up the old B-29, which has an exterior almost entirely of exposed aluminum.
“The museum has restored the B-29 interior almost completely,” he said. “But the outside is still something that looks like it’s been outside for decades. The team was able to turn parts of it into a highly reflective surface again.”
The B-29 is a project that will take more than a year, Huetter said, but the team made major progress on it.
Benko is a graduate of Salisbury High School and DeSales University. His degrees are in marketing and management, but his first interest was in sharp-looking transportation.
“I was always a car guy, grew up in a car family,” he said. “My father and uncle were into hot rods. I just knew that detailing cars was where my passion was.”
To hone his car detailing skills, he contacted Doyle last year and arranged for personal instruction in Big Bear.
“He’s the top detailer in the country as far as I’m concerned,” Benko said. “I spent a week with him in October in a one-on-one class.”
In June, Doyle invited him into the Air Force One Detailing Team, which during the week in Seattle is managed by Doyle’s group, the Detail Mafia.
Huetter said the museum and airplane aficionados are grateful for the team’s yearly visits.
“They are the best people in their profession and they come out in bigger numbers every year,” he said. “There is no way the museum could afford the same kind of care and professionalism they put into this work.”
Before the end of last week’s detailing, the Museum of Flight reopened the Air Force One to the public.
With bold colors, gleaming metal and the words “United States of America” crisp and clear on the fuselage, the old 707 was ready for new guests.
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com