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.