A New Home for a Historic Airplane Competition

Expertly restored vintage aircraft will be on view once again—in Sacramento.

More than 100,000 people attend the California Capital Airshow in Sacramento. The show has entertained Californians and their neighbors since 2004. (Mark E Loper)
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The National Aviation Heritage Invitational is a long name for a fun event that gives airplane fans the chance to ogle grand restorations. The Heritage trophy team has just announced that future competitions will be held at California Capital Airshow at Mather Airport, Sacramento, and this year’s show is offering a sneak preview of what fans can expect at the 2017 competition. Two restored airplanes expected to be part of the 2017 event will show up at the airshow this weekend: Chris Galloway’s 1936 Custom Cabin WACO from its home in Davis, California, and a 1947 Cessna 140, owned by the Cawthra family of Vacaville, California. The Cessna was awarded Best Classic at the 2014 National Aviation Heritage Invitational. Galloway’s WACO is the first YQC built (designation translation: Y indicates a 225-horsepower Jacobs L-4 engine; Q stands for the wing configuration, and C means Custom Cabin). The Custom Cabin series were the luxury models of the 1930s biplanes.

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Josh Cawthra’s resplendent Cessna 140, a Heritage winner, has a shiny history too. Aviation superstar Jackie Cochran flew it in the 1949 All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race from San Diego to Miami. (Leonardo Luna)

Unless you own a vintage aircraft or are lucky enough to live near an airport where one is based, you are unlikely to see the types of airplanes that gather for the Heritage competition. For the past 17 years, when the judging was conducted at Reno Stead Airport during the National Championship Air Races, rare and unique airplanes have flown in to be admired by the crowds and scrutinized by the judges. Winning airplanes are awarded trophies for the most historically accurate restoration in five categories. Three are for civilian aircraft: antiques, built and flown in 1934 or earlier; classics, for between 1935 and 1955; and contemporaries, 1956 to 45 years ago (a boundary that shifts with the year of competition, so until 1972 for next year’s event). WACOs have won their fair share in this category, but trophies have also been awarded to Stinsons, Travel Airs, Spartan Executives, and Aeroncas. One year, a perfect 1918 Curtiss JN-4H Jenny won the grand-champion trophy; a few years later the trophy went to a 1911 Bleriot XI. It’s not unusual to see those types in a museum, but these airplanes fly.

A trophy is awarded for the best restoration of a military aircraft (also older than 45 years), and this category has attracted some of the most famous warbirds flying today: Glacier Girl, the Lockheed P-38 extracted in 1992 from the Greenland icecap;  a 1945 Goodyear Corsair FG-1D, which had also carried off the grand champion trophy from the Experimental Aircraft Association; and last year’s triple-crown winner, the P-51 Mustang Berlin Express.

Large airplanes, those with wingspans of 45 feet or more, get their own category, and it has attracted Ford Tri-Motors, DC-3s, and one 1947 Grumman Mallard G-73.

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Chris Galloway flies his 1936 cabin WACO over a landscape that hasn’t changed much since the airplane was built. (Roger Cain)

One reason this competition has been so popular throughout the years is that the owners spend time with the people who stroll through the static display of aircraft. You can learn a lot about aviation history by talking to pilots of vintage aircraft who have spent a lot of time and money working on their airplanes and researching the airplane bios. An added bonus: You get to vote for your favorite among the aircraft being judged. The airplane with the most votes also nets a trophy for the owner. And once the fans and the judges have picked the winners, National Aviation Hall of Famers present the trophies: Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell, record setter Dick Rutan, airshow star Patty Wagstaff, P-51 ace Clarence “Bud” Anderson, and Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher have all been on hand over the years to present trophies.

The California Capital Airshow is adding all this aviation dazzle to their lineup of performers, this year headlined by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. Keep checking the show website for the 2017 dates and get them on your calendar. 

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At the 2015 National Aviation Heritage Invitational competition, the P-51B Mustang Berlin Express, restored by Pacific Fighters in Idaho Falls, won an unprecedented three trophies: best military restoration, Grand Champion, and People’s Choice. (Caroline Sheen)
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