Mr. Arango’s Aeroplanes
A World War I aircraft enthusiast’s collection tracks the evolution of the species.
- By Peter Garrison
- Air & Space magazine, February 2013
(Page 2 of 4)
The Dutchman Anthony Fokker was particularly prolific, once bringing eight different prototypes to a German procurement competition. When one of his offerings was passed over, he modified it overnight, re-submitted, and won. Though he was not a favorite of the German general staff, Fokker found ways to sell his airplanes, exploiting his acquaintance with aces like Oswald Boelcke and von Richthofen, who respected him because he was, like them, a virtuoso pilot. Fokker had a great success early in the war with his Eindecker, the so-called “Fokker Scourge” of the summer of 1915, and near the end with the D.VII, the only fighter of the era to have a noteworthy career after the Armistice.
The Arangos began their quest for authenticity by replacing the modern engines and propellers of the airplanes they had with original ones, and removing brakes, radios, and all the other gear required by modern airports. They moved the nascent collection to the family ranch near Paso Robles, about midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, built hangars, dedicated a 2,200-foot stretch of grass to a runway, and scouted the surrounding fields for emergency landing spots. Here, Javier could fly under conditions similar to those for which the airplanes had originally been built: grass fields, and readiness at any moment for an engine failure and a forced landing. Forced landings have been few—one occurred when a pushrod from a rotary’s cylinder came adrift and began to tear up the cowling—but to avoid tempting fate, the more valuable airplanes are dismantled and put on a truck if they need to make the four-mile trip to the Paso Robles airport.
The Arangos engaged Chuck Wentworth, who had taught Javier to fly the Fokker Triplane replica at Flabob, first to rebuild airplanes and then to build others from scratch. With the help of Wentworth, who incorporated at Paso Robles in 1991 as Antique Aero, the collection grew, acquiring or building a string of Nieuports—models 11, 17, 24bis, and 28—as well as additional Sopwiths and Fokkers. It also snagged a few outliers, including two Blériot XIs—the model in which inventor Louis Blériot had made the first aerial crossing of the English Channel—and a non-flyable pre-war Fokker Spinne, whose Dutch name, meaning “Spider,” referred to the web of wires bracing its warping wings. Recently, it has added a SPAD XIII replica built by Roger Freeman of Vintage Aviation Services, and a Wentworth-built Sopwith Snipe, both displaying the increased strength, bulk, and mass made possible by the Mercedes and Hispano-Suiza liquid-cooled engines that began to replace the lighter but less powerful rotaries late in the war. Two of Arango’s airplanes, the Eindecker (the name means “monoplane”), with a 100-horsepower Gnome, and the Sopwith Tabloid are the only representatives of their types that are accurate and flyable. The collection includes two originals: a 1917 Sopwith Camel that is being restored to flying condition with a 130-hp Clerget engine, and a Blériot built by the Vandersarl brothers of Colorado in 1911.
Aficionados of World War I airplanes form a small but fractious community. They debate authenticity: Is this airplane more or less authentic than that one? What are its shortcomings? What shade of red was von Richthofen’s triplane? Should modern fabric coverings, bolts, and cables be allowed? Is 4130 aircraft steel an acceptable deviation from the mild steel of the originals? Such minute questions arouse surprising passions. “I have seen many very nasty and very personal encounters among these different groups,” Arango says.
Although manufacturers used different techniques for framing and bracing, building a World War I replica from scratch is much like building a balsa-and-silk model airplane. The fabrication techniques were simple, so cabinet-makers and tinsmiths could readily adapt their skills to turning out thousands of airplanes. A proper respect for authenticity requires, however, that all of the work be done in the way it was a century ago.
There is little agreement about the proper use of words like replica, reproduction, restoration, and accurate, authentic, and original. It may seem intuitively obvious that a reproduction built today, no matter how accurate, is not an authentic World War I airplane. Just a few dozen airplanes built during World War I exist, mostly in museums; only a handful still fly. But the matter is complicated by the fact that even the surviving original airplanes have invariably been repaired or restored with various degrees of attention to authenticity. An airplane built today using original plans, materials, and methods might be more historically accurate than a surviving original that has been improperly restored. To further compound the problem, not all original examples of a given type were identical: Thousands were built; they used different engines, different factories adjusted the structures to suit their tools and methods; and when they reached the field, pilots modified them yet again. There is no single definitive Sopwith Camel, Fokker D.VII, or Nieuport 28 against which to measure a modern copy or restoration.
“There are three levels of authenticity,” Arango says, speaking of the 23 airplanes in his own collection. “The original Fokker from 1981 and the first S.E.5, those are the lowest kinds—the lookalikes that you use for movies in Hollywood. The next level is three or four airplanes that were like those, but that we have retrofitted back to nearly their original state. The structure is not 100 percent, but they have the correct engine, the correct weight, the correct aerodynamics, the correct look and sound. The others are pretty much as authentic as we can get.” Arango accepts certain deviations—for safety’s sake, modern seat belts and coverings in lieu of explosively flammable nitrate-doped linen—but the structures, fittings, and engines are correct in every other detail.
As the desire for historical accuracy grew, says Arango, the fieldwork and research required grew with it. For Sopwiths, detailed original plans are still available. Not so for Fokkers. Originals in museums can be inspected and measured to re-create plans. When there are no surviving originals, as is the case with Fokker’s Triplane and D.VI, dimensions must be derived from photographs and construction details inferred from other Fokker products.