In order to learn more, I visited in the Cater home. Chloe sat nearby and studied her homework as her father told his story but not before she explained, “He really gets into this stuff.”
Cater, 67, told how demand for his work takes him throughout the United States and to exotic places such as Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Argentina, Guam, the Philippines, and, once, he flew to Greenland -- the most memorable place he has been.
He said the radial engines, some of which have 3,700 units of horsepower and are as tall as 12 feet, were first built in the 1900s. The technology was used in both world wars. The radial engines are built with cylinders in a row around a crankcase. Air, rather than liquid, is used to cool the engines, which allows the aircraft to travel lighter.
Cater said the demand for his skills exists because some people collect and still fly antique aircraft. The average cost for one such airplane can be up to two million dollars, which means the high cost makes owners particular about choosing mechanics.
“They don’t let just any jackleg person work on them,” said Cater, who chuckled as he prepared a meal for his elderly father. “They don’t want anybody breaking their toys.”
Cater gets calls both day and night for his services. “I never know how these people find me,” he said.
Cater talked more about the Greenland project. The place he went was only about 550 miles from the North Pole.
On that particular job, Cater was later mentioned on a Nova feature film, which can be seen on Youtube by searching for the words “Nova B-29 Frozen in Time.” (Be sure to see parts 1-3.)
The time is set in 1994 when Cater was asked to take the place of a sick member who had been on a team of men. Their goal was to rescue an abandoned B-29 bomber that had been used in World War II. Its name was Kee Bird, and it was the same type of aircraft that had dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In 1947, the Kee Bird had developed problems in flight and had “belly-landed” while on a secret mission. The crew had been rescued, but the B-29 often sat encased in ice except during Greenland’s brief summer months. More than four decades later, prior to 1994, an man named Darryl Greenamyer and a team of other enthusiasts worked on a plan to bring the Kee Bird back to the United States. The team arranged for supplies to be shipped then flown to Greenland where the bomber sat.
Cater worked on Kee Bird’s engines for seven weeks. Ironically, after the project was complete and as the Kee Bird was taking off, a fire broke out in a fuel line and destroyed the entire plane. However, Cater never forgot the experience of working in a land where the cold was so dry and severe that the skin on his hands peeled off upon his return home.
Cater never realized he would experience such unusual events when he entered the military. “When I went into the Navy in 1964, I told them I wanted something I could use when I got out of service,” he said.
The Navy trained him to work on aircraft, but he didn’t stop there. When his service ended in 1969, he used the GI Bill to attend the Alabama Institute of Aviation Technology in Ozark where he became certified to work on civilian aircraft. Later, he obtained the Air Frame and Power Plant license, which gave him the highest training available for aircraft mechanics.
Cater worked at various jobs and moved around until he found himself in South Texas where he met his wife, Crisilda. They started their family there, where older daughter Circe was born. Later, in 1999, the family moved to Calhoun County to be closer his parents. His mother has since died.
Cater worked on airplanes until 2004 when a decline in the industry due to the 9-11 attack in New York City led him to seek work at Southwire in Heflin. Now, though, the industry is revived. Cater is back to working on radial engines – a job he loves.
“I love the money, working on the old airplanes, and seeing unique places,” he said.
Email Sherry at firstname.lastname@example.org.