Herb Phelan oral history interview
Aeronautical engineer Herb Phelan is interviewed about his career in the aviation industry and his involvement in several aircraft restoration projects. He discusses his work with various aviation companies and his career at Boeing, circa 1950s-1990s. Projects discussed include the 727, 747, SST (Supersonic Transport), Minuteman III missile, and the AWACS program. He then discusses his restoration work on the Boeing Model 80A, the B-17F Flying Fortress, and the B-29 Superfortress. All three of these vintage aircraft are now on display at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington.
Table Of Contents
Herb Phelan is a retired aeronautical engineer who has worked on several restoration projects of vintage aircraft. He was born on March 6, 1928 in Everett, Massachusetts and grew up in a foster home in Dorchester. He attended John Marshall Elementary School, Grover Cleveland Junior High School, and Hyde Park High School. While in high school, he studied drafting and worked as an apprentice draftsman for the Clifford Manufacturing Company (Boston, Massachusetts). He then apprenticed for Westinghouse.
In 1946, Phelan received his draft notice from the U.S. Army. He completed basic training at Sheppard Field (Texas) and advanced training at Scott Field (Illinois), where he earned his qualification as a teletype operator. He served at Holloman Air Force Base (New Mexico) until 1947, when he was honorably discharged.
After completing his military service, Phelan enrolled in the aeronautical engineering course at Cal-Aero Technical Institute (California). He completed the course in two years and then worked a series of engineering jobs with Lockheed, American Machine and Foundry Company, Chance Vought, and Pratt & Whitney. During this time, he also completed an aeronautical engineering degree at Boston University. He was hired by the Boeing Company in 1960 and relocated to Washington State.
During his career at Boeing, Phelan worked on a variety of engineering projects and contributed design details to numerous aircraft, including the 727, 747, SST (Supersonic Transport), and the E-3 and E-6 AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) programs. He also worked on the Minuteman III missile and served as the Boeing representative to the Dornier Company in Germany.
Phelan assisted in the restoration of The Museum of Flight’s Boeing 80A by repairing the lower left outboard wing. His next aircraft restoration project came in 1993, when he joined the team of volunteers restoring the Museum’s B-17F Flying Fortress. The team successfully restored the aircraft to flying condition, and Phelan served as the B-17 crew chief when it went on display at the Museum’s main campus. He also served as the crew chief for the Boeing B-29 Superfortress restoration project, following the passing of crew chief Dale Nicholson in 2009. As of 2018, Phelan is still an active volunteer at the Restoration Center and has logged over 13,000 hours of volunteer work at the Museum.
Phelan married his wife, Isabel, in 1954. They had four children together.
Biographical information derived from interview and additional information provided by interviewee.