A volunteer’s expertise helps the US Space & Rocket Center restore A-12 aircraft

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Restoration crews at the US Space & Rocket Center work on the A-12 Oxcart.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — An icon at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is getting some TLC. You can see the aircraft while you’re driving on I-565, but there’s a common misconception about it.

It’s the A-12 Oxcart.

“This is the real deal,” said Lt. Col. Retired, Nick Van Valkenburgh who served in the air force.

Most refer to it as the “black bird,” but contrary to popular belief, it’s not black.

“The official paint color is dark blue,” Van Valkenburgh said.

Van Valkenburgh is no stranger to aircraft like the A-12. “During my career I spent some time supporting aircraft like the A-12,” Van Valkenburgh said.

Now, he gets the chance to see it up close and personal, while crews spruce it up.

“It’s just amazing to be able to walk up and actually touch the surface of this airplane, it’s very special,” he said.

More than the perks, he’s here to tell stories. “Most of us just have a desire to share our background and our knowledge and apply some humanity to the exhibits,” said Van Valkenburgh. “It’s a way of taking an aluminum, or in this case titanium, exhibit and giving some humanity to it.”

Over the last six weeks, crews have been out, weather permitting, restoring the A-12, which is one of only seven left in existence.

“They have taken off the old paint, they filled in some gaps in the sheet metal,” he explained.

Add some sanding, primer and a final top coat to the mix…and the end is in sight.

“The first time I saw one of these airplanes fly was in 1966 and I was just absolutely taken back by it and you never lose that,” said Van Valkenburgh. “It’s just a very special airplane.”

The USSRC is always willing to have the help of volunteers when taking on these types of projects.

“Volunteers definitely make working on these projects a lot easier, a lot less expensive because they can save us a lot of labor hours,” said Director of Exhibits and Curation, Ed Stewart.

Stewart says in Nick’s case, it helps he has expertise on these type of aircraft– it saves them time with researching before starting the project.

If you’re interested in volunteering at the USSRC, find more information on their website.