Seeing smiles on the faces of passengers aboard the World War II aircraft that Bill Klaers flies is all the motivation and reward he needs.
Klaers' Colorado Springs operation features one of the world’s most renowned restoration shops for World War II planes, and he heads a national museum next door. His passion for the aircraft of that era originated in the 1980s, when a brother bought a T-6 Texan and became a pilot. They went to an airshow together in Chino, Calif., where Bill saw a Vought F4U-7 Corsair with its wings folded up and was in awe.
“I just loved it,” he said.
Although Klaers’ father served in World War II and participated in the occupation of Japan at the end of the war, as with many men of his generation, he didn’t talk much about it.
For almost 40 years, Klaers has taken pleasure in meeting World War II veterans and hearing their stories. With the war having ended more than 75 years ago, there are fewer and fewer of those veterans still alive.
Klaers was an industrial pipefitter early in his career before his hobby of working on World War II planes turned into a business in the early 1980s. He was based at Rialto Airport, roughly 55 miles east of Los Angeles. He restored three planes for Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen.
“Our shop was the premier shop,” the 67-year-old Black Forest resident said recently from WestPac Restorations, on the northwest edge of the Colorado Springs Airport. WestPac focuses exclusively on World War II aircraft restoration projects while also providing maintenance for World War II planes from museums throughout the country.
WestPac moved from California to Colorado Springs in 2009 with 92 tractor-trailers full of aircraft parts.
The restoration shop is located next to the National Museum of World War II Aviation, which opened in October 2012 and continues to grow.
“The volunteers are the heart of this museum,” Klaers said.
He also said his wife of more than 30 years, Debbie, is invaluable. She overseas museum events and runs the front desk. The museum is open Wednesday-Sunday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Ticket prices range from $11 to $17 with, WWII veterans getting in free.
Dirt work for a second hangar for the museum began Monday, and the new space is expected to open in a few years. Klaers said it will likely house fighters like the P-51 Mustang and bombers including the B-17 and a B-23 previously owned by Howard Hughes.
The museum is unique because it tells the story of World War II aviation through its collection of fully restored and flying aircraft. Visitors to the museum can also get a tour of the WestPac facility and potentially watch as staff and volunteers work on a restoration project.
“Our mission (at WestPac) is to create the next generation of aviation mechanics and pilots to keep this history alive,” Klaers said.
With the museum, Klaers said the goal is to “inspire kids into an aviation career.”
Education is key to what Klaers and the host of volunteers are trying to do.
“Why inspire someone if you don’t give them the path to follow it through?" he said.
Roughly 26,000 students have participated in school programs at WestPac since 2012, according to Klaers. One program they are currently offering to select high school students from the Widefield School District sets participants on a path to a career as an airframe or powerplant mechanic and a six-figure salary after only a few years.
A major highlight for Klaers was flying his B-25J Mitchell off an aircraft carrier in Tokyo in 1992 while celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid.
“I met with Doolittle Raiders and learned about what they did and how they did it,” Klaers said. “It was lifechanging because it’s not about me, it’s about them and what they did.”
Klaers has flown his B-25 off four different aircraft carriers and has more than 1,000 flight hours on it.
He took the B-25 up in May, circling over Colorado Springs for about an hour with a Douglas SBD Dauntless — used as a Navy scout plane and dive bomber — along its side before making a pass over the Air Force Academy cemetery to honor a World War II veteran who was being laid to rest.
His copilot on the flight was one of his sons, Scott, 46, the oldest of three kids, who works full-time in the family business. Scott’s children are often at WestPac helping out.
“I love what I do,” Scott said. “We’ve been able to take a lot of vets up that flew in these World War II aircraft. It is a real honor.”
Bill enjoys working with his son and grandchildren.
“Scott is a great talent,” Bill said. “He is a great sheet metal mechanic fabricator.”
Alan Wojciak, who piloted the Douglas SBD Dauntless during the burial flight, is co-owner of WestPac Propeller Services, which manufactures propellers inside the WestPac Restorations facility.
“These airplanes are our life,” Wojciak said.
It’s a labor of love for all involved.
“I don’t know how Bill juggles all the chainsaws that he does,” Wojciak said.