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Crown Jewels

What gives the restored warbirds of the Flying Heritage Collection their sparkle?

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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.

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