What gives the restored warbirds of the Flying Heritage Collection their sparkle?
- By Peter Garrison
- Air & Space magazine, November 2004
(Page 3 of 5)
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.