AT THE END OF JANUARY 1945, A P-51 MUSTANG, one of about 8,000 built by North American Aviation during World War II, rolled off the assembly line in Inglewood, California. At about the same time, a young fighter pilot, Harrison B. "Bud" Tordoff, finished his first tour of duty in England and went home to the States on leave.
Tordoff had been a 19-year-old sophomore at Cornell University, studying ornithology, when he enlisted in the fall of 1942. "I had never been in a plane in my life," he recalls. "I was eager, thrilled with the poem 'High Flight,' and hoping to avoid fighting on the ground—completely naive." Having depth perception that "wasn't up to Air Force standards," he passed the vision test by observing the settings used on the testing apparatus by the candidate ahead of him. Nevertheless, during his first 69 missions he shot down three Bf 109 fighters, two of them on his very first encounter with the Luftwaffe.
When he returned to duty on March 1, 1945, he found the brand-new P-51D waiting for him.
Tordoff had christened his first airplane, a P-47, Anne after a girlfriend whom he'd met just before shipping out for his first tour. When he switched to the P-51, he had cooled on Anne and wanted a new name. It happened that in 1944 a B-17 called Murder Inc. had gone down in Germany, and Nazi propaganda had made hay out of the name. Thereafter, the Eighth Air Force required official approval of airplane names. "I thought I would bug them with an unfamiliar name," he says. He drew on his knowledge of ornithology: "I liked the scientific name of the hoopoe, Upupa epops, for its silliness, and the bird seemed appropriate, given its seeming weak flight, bizarre appearance, and untidy nesting habits." Some poor bureaucrat may have spent hours trying to tease a double entendre out of the Latin name, but it was approved without comment.
During the six weeks that remained before the war in Europe ended, Tordoff shot down two more German airplanes, one of the kills a lucky strike he got by hitting the engine of a fleeing Messerschmitt Me 262 at long range.
At the war's end, Tordoff and the -51 parted ways. He returned to Cornell in September of 1945 and, having taken courses while in the Army, graduated the following year. Upupa epops remained in Europe. Sold to Sweden in 1947, the Mustang served there until 1954, when it was purchased by the Dominican Republic.
In 1999, a shadowy consortium of airline pilots in the Pacific Northwest bought the P-51 from Florida warbird dealer Brian O'Farrell, who had acquired Upupa epops among a lot of retired Dominican Mustangs in 1984. The so-called consortium—really a front for an anonymous collector—delivered it to WestPac Restorations in Rialto, California, where it remained for two and a half years before being flown to Arlington, Washington, in livery exactly matching that in which it had left the North American factory in 1944.
There, on August 19, 2003, Bud Tordoff, after a distinguished career as an ornithologist—his specialty, appropriately, was falcons—met Upupa epops again.
Tordoff had come to Arlington at the invitation of Paul G. Allen, co-founder, with Bill Gates, of Microsoft. Allen was the mystery collector. Too many times a millionaire to be worth counting, he is also a philanthropist, and fond of creating public museums of things for which he has a passion. At the foot of Seattle's Space Needle, a Frank Gehry-designed building that resembles a pile of brightly colored laundry billowing in a high wind houses his interactive rock music museum, the Experience Music Project, as well as his Museum of Science Fiction. In addition to rock and roll and sci-fi, Allen had long been enamored of aviation and wanted to collect and exhibit examples from the 1940s and '50s heyday of fighter development, especially the advanced German aircraft of World War II. And he was prepared to spend some money to do it.
In 1998 Allen had engaged Jeff Thomas, an American Airlines 777 captain and aircraft collector, as a consultant. The sandy-haired, youthful-looking Thomas was the son of a Navy mechanic who had worked on Wildcats and Hellcats in the Pacific. Thomas had done some professional restoring himself, and owned Vintage Wings, a historic aircraft restoration business.
The two brainstormed their way to the idea of an airplane collection that would emphasize the "artifactual" value of its contents. The airplanes would be recognized both as the pinnacles of their technological eras and as stars in historical and—as it would turn out in a few cases—personal dramas. Allen and Thomas hoped to acquire fighters that had seen combat; the details of any engagements would be researched so that each aircraft could be displayed with a specific history, not merely a summation of the type's dimensions and capabilities. Everything about each airplane—its service history, its air crews, the materials and methods of its manufacture, its armament and internal equipment—would be documented to the highest degree of historical scholarship. Restorations would be done to a standard of authenticity never before attempted.
And they would fly.
This was the crux of the project. In the past, collections of historic airplanes had gone one way or the other: Either the airplanes were highly authentic but statically displayed (such as in the National Air and Space Museum), or compromises in authenticity were made for safety and reliability of flight (as in the Commemorative Air Force's fleet).
Although airplane collecting—unlike, say, art collecting—has been going on for a relatively short time, by the late 1990s most of the really good "pieces" were already in museums or private collections. The untouched, unappreciated biplane in a barn, the bomber at the bottom of a clear lake—these were largely of the past. Time was swiftly overtaking what undiscovered relics remained, especially those in the Pacific theater, where salt moisture devours aluminum airframes. On the other hand, some enthusiasts who had bought old warplanes with a dream of restoring them had become discouraged and wanted to sell.
Since a small market like that for historic aircraft could be severely distorted by the financial weight of a Paul Allen, Thomas worked in secrecy. Still, word spread through collection circles that a mysterious 800-pound gorilla was on the prowl for warbirds. Over the span of just five months, Allen and Thomas assembled the core of their collection, spiriting away some of World War II's most iconic airplanes—a Messerschmitt Bf 109E-3 and a Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-5, a Hawker Hurricane Mk.XIIB and a Supermarine Spitfire Mk.VC, a Lockheed P-38J Lightning, a Vought-designed, Goodyear-built FG-1D Corsair, a Mitsubishi A6M3-22 Zero-Sen, and Upupa epops—to a secret destination the warbird community dubbed "Area 51" (for the Air Force's secret Nevada test site, long part of the lore of the flying saucer crowd).
Because of the project's standards, prior restoration—which usually entailed making an airplane look superficially genuine to an untrained eye—would not be a help, and in fact would usually be a hindrance. Owners concerned only with a period "look" would almost certainly have used improper paint, markings, and equipment. These would have to be stripped away until the airplane was scarcely different from an untouched hulk. "People would pull the old radios out of airplanes and just toss them into the trash bin," says Thomas. "They were no good for flying, and people wouldn't see them in a static display." In the Flying Heritage Collection's airplanes, the original tube radios would work. Luckily, most of the airplanes in the initial collection were complete and had not been restored, or, if restoration had been started, it was of an acceptable quality. Only in the case of the Fw 190 was it necessary to undo what had been done.
Inevitably, the values on which the collection was founded would conflict. Perfect authenticity could be at odds with safety of flight, especially in the oldest designs and in airplanes, like a Messerschmitt Me 262A-1a, that had originally relied on then-immature technologies. Some historically correct materials, such as the lacquer-coated cotton insulation on wiring, would wear and age more rapidly than modern ones. And there would be the subtler challenge of balancing historical authenticity against perfect restoration—what Javier Arango, a California collector of World War I aircraft, calls "Plato's temptation," whereby "the artifact created is presented in its ideal state rather than its utilitarian one" by a craftsman whose instinct is to produce perfect work rather than to duplicate the routine output of a wartime factory. Warplanes were, in fact, manufactured rapidly, in the expectation that their service lives would be short. Once deployed, they were soon dingy, dented, patched, and oil-stained.
Thomas and Allen believed it essential to reproduce the original builders' process. If you used the same processes, authenticity—blemishes and all—would follow naturally. "Take the time to be imperfect," Thomas would say to prospective restorers, some of whom found his demand for minute fidelity to ancient and obscure standards and procedures to be incomprehensible, impractical, or simply beyond their capabilities. He would not compromise. "To have honest pieces, we had to consider the methods by which they were made," he says.
Thomas identified several restoration shops that could handle the work, and gathered them for discussions about the collection's philosophy. He encountered resistance from some who had always worked in secrecy and did not care to share their methods with competitors. Other shops could not or would not adjust to the collection's stringent requirements. Eventually, all but four fell aside, and JME Aviation in England, Southern California's Aero Trader and WestPac Restorations, and Thomas' own Vintage Wings got the work (though other shops may be hired as restorations continue).
After nearly six years, in April 2004, the nature of the collection and the identity of the project's backer were made public. "It took a great amount of time and effort to sharpen the focus and the end result," Thomas says. "But we have it now, and want to share the steps from the beginning of the restoration process to the eventual flight of the aircraft." The collection now publicizes its activities with a Web site (www.flyingheritage.com) and invites the public to its base, on a former World War II training field in rural Arlington, a small, forest-encircled town an hour north of Seattle. There, staff of the nascent collection, still housed in temporary quarters, give guided tours ($20 per person, by reservation only) and occasional flying demonstrations.
At present, only about a fifth of the Flying Heritage Collection can be seen, and of those airplanes, only a Curtiss Jenny biplane primary trainer, two German vengeance weapons—one a Fieseler Fi 103 missile, better known as a V-1 "buzz bomb," and the other a Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenburg manned missile, which was equipped with a tiny cockpit from which the pilot was to jump after pointing the cruise missile at its target—and Upupa epops have been restored to the collection's standards. ("I was very impressed," says Bud Tordoff of Upupa epops' restoration. "It was more elegant than I remembered it. Fresh paint, and cleaner. It was as close to 1945 standards as you could get it. They even offered to let me start it up and taxi it, but I declined.") The others, which look good but are either incomplete or still historically incorrect, include a Curtiss P-40C Tomahawk, casually restored by a previous owner and currently painted with the expected, but in this case incorrect, shark's mouth; the time-tortured shell of a Mitsubishi A6M5-52 Zero-sen not destined for restoration (displayed to illustrate the fate of unrescued warbirds); and a Polikarpov U-2/PO-2, the rickety biplane flown by the famous Russian women's ground attack squadron that the Germans called "Night Witches."
In one workshop behind the scenes, a Vietnam-era Republic F-105 Thunderchief—a gigantic thing, more like a locomotive than an airplane—and two LTV F-8 Crusaders huddle against one wall, while a Polikarpov I-16, a Pekingese-faced, barrel-chested peanut of a fighter, seemingly an illegitimate offspring of the GeeBee racers of the early 1930s, stands by itself on an expanse of white floor. In another building, not open to visitors, original engines, many of them encrusted with years of oil and dust, rest on pallets.
In a rare compromise, Vintage Wings may machine new turbine wheels of modern high-temperature alloy in order for the Me 262 to safely fly with its original Junkers Jumo 004 engines, which were designed when high-temperature metallurgy was still in its infancy. At Aero Trader, which is restoring a North American B-25J Mitchell bomber, shop owner Carl Sholl has had to make similar judgment calls. "The edict [from Allen and Thomas] was: If it's on the blueprint for this serial number airplane, that's the way we want it," says Sholl, but "there were a couple of things we had to compromise on that were safety issues…We can't use the original carburetor, because no one in the world is overhauling it. There's no parts available. So we had to resort to a [post-war B-25] carburetor."
Each restoration takes 20,000 to 40,000 man-hours, and while Thomas won't discuss money, acquiring and restoring each airplane must cost at least a million dollars, and more likely two. At WestPac, one of 14 employees works at a computer terminal, duplicating the designs of decals, stencils, and rubber stamps; two others study microfilmed documentation and track down manufacturers who either produced original parts during the war or are willing and able to set up obsolete production processes to re-create them today. Nuts and bolts, certain types of rivets, tires, electrical wiring—all must be manufactured anew just as they were six decades ago. The ink in the stamp pads—much of the lettering on the Mustang, for instance, was rubber-stamped—is chemically correct.
Each part, including those that disappear into the unvisited recesses of structure, must have a quality controller's inspection stamp identical to the ones used at the original factory. "There's no such thing as 'They'll never see it,' " says WestPac's soft-spoken president, Bill Klaers. Restorers use parts and equipment that are identical to the ones originally used; even though many versions of an accessory would fit and function in the airplane, only the one with which it was originally produced is acceptable.
Getting the Flying Heritage Collection work "was a dream come true," says Klaers. "All restorers say that they wish a customer had the money to do a restoration back to original specs—the final 10 percent," he says. "After doing one, I realize that I never knew how difficult that final 10 percent would be…It's changed my idea of restoration…Now I'd never go back."
The collection's Republic P-47 Thunderbolt is under restoration at WestPac; the FG-1D Corsair is next in line, and the Lockheed P-38J after that. Other treasures, which include a rare CASA 2.111D bomber (a Spanish-built Heinkel He 111H) and a Yakovlev Yak-3U fighter are in storage in Arlington, their restorations not yet scheduled.
WestPac had to relearn old techniques, like the spot-welding of heat-treatable aircraft alloys, because although the same effect could be had today by riveting, that's not how it was originally done. The spot-welding in the Mustang—the "doghouse" containing the radiator ducting consisted of three large spot-welded subassemblies—was, says Klaers, "the most cost-ineffective thing on the airplane." But it was worth it. His clientele has expanded, he says, to include "collectors who want to take advantage of this costly educational experience."
JME Aviation is restoring the collection's Fw 190 as well as its Me 262. Fw 190s were the best of the Axis propeller fighters, and are rare today; about two dozen airframes, or portions of them, are known. No flying example of reasonable authenticity exists.
The collection's Fw 190 came from Russia, where it had lain for decades, upright and relatively undamaged, in a remote forest east of Leningrad (St. Petersburg today). What was an airplane doing deep in a forest? The answer, deduced from the damage to the leading edges of the wings, was that it had crashed among poplar saplings only a few feet tall. The forest had grown up around it.
Flash back to July 19, 1943. Two Fw 190s were attacking a Russian supply train bound for Leningrad when the engine of one quit. The pilot, Sergeant Paul Rätz, glided to a safe landing. He left his flying cap on the seat but took the airplane's panel clock with him. Trying to make his way back to German lines, he was captured a few miles away and remained imprisoned in Russia for 16 years before finally returning to Germany. In 1988, a collector found the Focke-Wulf where Rätz had left it, his helmet still resting on the seat. Rätz died in 1989, never having learned that his airplane had been recovered. But his family did—and, it turns out, they still have the clock.
A Vintage Wings technician dismantling the 190's BMW 801 engine found a clod of dirt in an oil line downstream from the oil filter. This had evidently been the reason for the forced landing: Lack of lubrication had caused an internal shaft to overheat and fail, disabling the fuel and oil pumps. But how had the dirt—not engine dirt, but soil, earth—gotten there? Says Jeff Thomas, "BMW's policy on major engine maintenance was to insist that the whole 'power egg'—the engine and all of its plumbing and equipment and mounting hardware—just be taken off and sent back to the factory rather than repaired in the field." As a result, all engine assembly was done in Germany, some of it by slave laborers. The theory is that one of those laborers had packed dirt into the oil line to sabotage the engine, the engine had then been shipped to Russia and installed on the airplane at the front, and within a few minutes after takeoff the defiant act of the distant and anonymous captive had done its work.
The minute historical precision and obsessive fidelity to truth that characterize the Flying Heritage Collection raise a philosophical question. History has not been entirely kind to the 19th century French architectural historian Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, whose painstakingly researched restorations of the great masterpieces of French medieval and Gothic architecture were later criticized for effacing the boundary between what was original and what was new, albeit re-created with original methods and appropriate materials. In that case, antiquity in and of itself—the knowledge that the original stones, however corroded now by time, had witnessed the coronations and the deaths of kings and so possessed a higher kind of truth—was seen as a thing distinct from mere antique forms, however authentically expressed. The same sort of misgiving might beset the visitor who stands before Upupa epops, unable to know which of the pieces of metal before him were present when Bud Tordoff shot down that Me 262, and which were not.
But most who make the pilgrimage to this remarkable collection will be untroubled by that scruple. Bill Klaers, who with his business partner Alan Wojciak had owned a Mustang and had seen and flown countless others, says, until he saw the finished Upupa epops, "I never knew what a Mustang looked like!" John Dibbs, whose photography accompanies this article and who wears his love of old airplanes on his sleeve, speaks of a "change in temperature" that he feels when he faces the old Mustang—the chill of knowing that this is the real thing, this is exactly how it was. When, ten years from now, the Flying Heritage Collection's airplanes have all been restored, and they are on the ramp with their engines running on a flying day, that chill will be felt by many: the momentary sense of the past recaptured, of Then made Now.