Digitizing the past: Online library preserves aircraft materials from WWII

Scrolling through AirCorps Library is like stepping out of a time machine. Drawings and documents pepper the site, reminiscent of 1940’s wartime: manuals for a B-25 Mitchell bomber, descriptions of landing gear installations, a World War II pilot’s booklet. The latter reads:

“You have an important job — that of carrying airborne troops and equipment behind enemy lines, over unfamiliar territory, and into strange landing areas. It’s a big responsibility, and demands your best.”

Ken Dunlap - Glider

The material gives a glimpse into the life of World War II pilots, and insight on the engineering behind the war planes and equipment. There are hundreds of thousands of these resources, all created in a pre-Internet era. Until now, they’ve existed mainly on dusty bookshelves, boxes, or cased in museums.

Now, a Bemidji startup called AirCorps Library is preserving them online.

“There’s people all over the world that have these rare manuals, drawings, and pictures, and they want to do something to preserve them,” said Eric Trueblood. “We can create a digital copy and give that resource a new life beyond a museum box or a bookshelf.”

Digitizing the past

Trueblood is the co-owner of AirCorps Aviation, a World War II aircraft restoration facility in Bemidji. In their line of work, they often have to consult old manuals and scrounge for specific pieces and parts to restore airplanes, often worth millions of dollars.

“Our biggest challenge was that the information, due to the rarity and age, was so fragmented. You’d go one place for one thing. If you needed a manual you might call this person or that person. There was no system for finding resources,” Trueblood said. “This [AirCorps Library] has largely been our brainchild as just a better way to do things.”

AirCorps  began by outsourcing the high resolution processing of the microfilm, and then processing and organizing the files in house, Trueblood said. Over time, he realized they had not only mastered the art of digitizing, but they also had amassed a sizeable library of resources.

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Trueblood, who graduated from University of North Dakota with a degree in marketing and economics, had always approached AirCorps Aviation with the mind of a businessman. He immediately began to recognize an opportunity in the library resources.

Using seed capital from their aircraft restoration business AirCorps partnered with developer Hatfield Systems Design from Minneapolis and Evolve Creative from Bemidji and began building up the platform. They followed the footsteps of similar models such as Ancestry.com, where an annual subscription gives you access to a wealth of data and drawings. The platform, they decided, would also be open to users to contribute their own drawings, similar to Wikipedia.

The platform is currently organized by aircraft, manufacturer or part number. By searching for a term, the software will populate the page in a family-tree like graph, showing year and model of airplane.

Aircorps-Library-p51-drawing-tree

Tapping into a world market

Trueblood and his team launched AirCorps Library in January. In the four months since then, they have received over 190,000 pages worth of information donated to the site from 95 different countries.

“We thought data acquisition costs would be the biggest challenge,” Trueblood said. “But processing the data is the challenge.”

The data is all stored directly on the cloud and hosted by Microsoft Azure, he said. Users are able to print documents, although downloading files is still restricted. The pricing is split into three options, with payment charged annually: Fighters $50, Classics $25 and Bombers $50.

Today they average 400 interactions per day on the site, whether that be commenting on an image, contributing resources, or searching for a drawing by a part number.

“We have had people offer technical manuals, training and maintenance documents, and resources for motorcycles, jeeps, ships, medics, infantry, armament, airplanes, and more,” Trueblood said. “It is pretty remarkable to see the community of people contributing to the preservation.”
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Their work has garnered the interest of a variety of sources. Museums have contacted them about accessing certain documents, and digitizing their own resources. Ralph Lauren also acquired a few digital files to use as a printed backdrop in one of their fashion displays.
As far as competition goes, the closest similar resource is Ancestry.com which focuses on family genealogy, not airplanes.

“There’s really no one doing what we’re doing,” Trueblood said.

In April, Trueblood presented AirCorps LibraryAirCorps Library at the MN Idea Competition, and took first place, winning $10,000. The cash will be put towards the future development of the product, Trueblood said.

Breathing life into old stories

Future plans include creating an option where users can order manufactured parts from the manuals, with the possibility of adding an e-commerce layer to the platform, Trueblood said. They may branch out to include a more than airplanes as well, he said. They are releasing a new version of the site in June, which could include contributions they’ve received varying from shipyard plans, to Harley Davidson and gun drawings, Trueblood said.

But they also hope to delve more into the social interaction features, he said, such as the ability to comment or ‘like’ certain manuals or drawings. It’s part of the emotional aspect to the Library – an aspect Trueblood said he underestimated, initially.

They realized it after 92-year-old 2nd Lieutenant and WWII pilot Ken Dunlap, came to them with all his old squadron records, books, drawings and manuals. He’d had them for years, but never knew what to do with them, he said. He said, “Can you do something with this?”

“That’s what changed it for us,” Trueblood said.

Loren Hintz (left), next to fellow pilot Bob Johnston

Dunlap was not the only one. Lieutenant Loren Hintz was killed  on April 21, 1945 in Bagnarola, Italy. Now, his grandson Hans is on a quest to learn more about the grandpa he never knew. Already he has traveled to Bagnarola and found the exact location where the plane went down.

This summer, he is returning to the spot with a documentary crew, to see if they can find more structure from the plane. He’s using AirCorps Library to search parts and look through manuals, as well as preserve the resources he’s found from his grandpa.

“There’s something emotional for people about opening up their grandfather’s book locker, or celebrating relatives time in service,” Trueblood said. “Somebody who’s grandfather flew an airplane or drove a tank in World War II… maybe they didn’t talk about that experience. But this gives you access to all their training materials.”

Learn more here.

Marisa Jackels

Marisa Jackels

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