What gives the restored warbirds of the Flying Heritage Collection their sparkle?
- By Peter Garrison
- Air & Space magazine, November 2004
(Page 2 of 5)
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.