Collectors of survival equipment have a craving for flight helmets, life vests, ejection seats—even shark repellant.
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, January 2000
(Page 3 of 6)
Patterson built his collection piece by piece after he researched and began looking for thousands of small, seemingly unrelated parts—buckles, chin straps, flashlights, compasses, waterproof maps—to complete his ensembles, some of which comprise hundreds of elements, including Martin Baker ejection seats, made up of 1,300 parts. He holds a small survival tin containing comestibles and cigarettes, which he needed to complete a World War II ensemble. “Seventy five bucks,” Patterson says. “A few years ago this stuff was just thrown out. But now there are collectors everywhere and the prices are ridiculous.”
That there are thousands of collectors of aviation artifacts worldwide attests to two facts, according to R. Chad LeBeau, proprietor of Aviation Artifacts, Inc.: People are infatuated with airplanes, and they can’t afford them. LeBeau can talk for days about collectors, warbird parts, and his experiences as perhaps the biggest private collector and dealer of warbird paraphernalia in the United States.
“Museums want the big stuff, planes and engines. My customers want their own planes too, but they can’t have them, so they decide to collect the stuff that the pilots touched,” says LeBeau. “They’re treasure hunters who start collecting stuff they can afford and it gets to be a compulsion.”
Keeping that compulsion somewhat in check can be a challenge. Lee Patterson admits he “kind of lost it” the afternoon that he suggested to his wife Cindy that it might be a good idea to cover the master bathtub with a nice piece of plywood and use it for parachute storage. “We hardly ever take baths,” he explains, adding quickly, “we’re shower people.” Cindy realized at that point that his case was probably incurable and countered with a suggestion of her own: If they were to keep their marriage intact, they should find a much bigger house. Now, six years after their move, the collection fills the basement of their current home, and the Pattersons are facing another move to San Diego in 2000 to retire. “We’ll have a smaller house,” says Patterson. “Might as well, it would take a hangar to house this collection. Imagine 123 life-size mannequins with enough space to walk around each one and see all the gear.”
Patterson’s father was a World War I aviator who went on to manage an airport. Patterson says that moving from a military family into law enforcement was a natural progression for him and that he feels most comfortable in a disciplined and ordered life. Another collector, Dave Mattsson, saw his obsession begin in a family that was also involved with law enforcement and flight. Mattsson, a 36-year-old skydiving instructor, parachute rigger, and aircraft mechanic for Northwest Airlines, has been collecting ejection seats and associated life support gear since he made his first parachute jump at the age of 16, on a chute similar to the C-9 round parachute that Patterson started on.
Mattsson’s father, a Minneapolis police officer and sailplane pilot, used to take “Little David,” as he is still known at the drop zone, to his soaring club, which shared an airport with a skydiving club. “I remember all the times I saw grown men screaming ‘Yahoo!’ as they rode their canopies down,” Mattsson says. “I wanted to understand what they were feeling and I wanted to try it myself.” From a childhood spent with every kind of flying toy imaginable to his first jump and a coming of age at the drop zone, Mattsson says the allure of flight and ejection seats and survival equipment was unavoidable. “What I try to do now is keep the disease in check. A couple of years ago I got a Russian leather flight jacket. My first instinct was to complete the ensemble, to get a helmet and chute, et cetera. I caught myself and traded the jacket. That was close.”
Mattsson lives in a Cape Cod-style house with a Holstein-marked cat named Tara and 13 mannequins dressed in flightsuits and survival gear that run the gamut from World War I to present. “I feel like a mortician dressing these stiffs,” Mattsson says. A bachelor who makes a good living, Mattsson is an ideal collector, according to LeBeau. “I’d be a millionaire if it weren’t for guys’ wives,” he laments. “I’ve had to send stuff to secret post office boxes. One guy told me he sifts dust from the vacuum cleaner bag onto new pieces in his collection, hoping his wife won’t notice them.”
Mattsson’s appreciation for the equipment he collects extends beyond just admiring it in his basement—he sometimes jumps with a C-9 parachute taken from a Martin Baker ejection seat. A Federal Aviation Administration-certified parachute rigger, he is an expert on the Martin Baker systems and spends several days every year giving a refresher course to the pilots and crews that maintain and fly the OV-1 Mohawks at the American Wings Air Museum at Anoka County Airport in Minnesota (see “The Last of the Mohawks,” Feb./Mar. 1997). Mattsson’s students zip up a flightsuit and don a helmet in preparation for strapping into the training seat and rehearsing ejection scenarios. After briefing the student on how the Mohawk’s ejection seat works (including how the canopy on the OV-1 doesn’t jettison prior to ejection—the seat punches right through it), he gently tests each student’s knowledge, asking for a demonstration of the proper posture prior to ejection or how to prevent flailing injuries by keeping elbows tucked in tight while pulling the upper ejection handle, or face curtain. Mattsson has justifiable confidence in his equipment—the Martin Baker seats he maintains may be the most successful in the 55-year history of ejection seats (See “Ejection Seats, p. 65).