The Magical History Tour
Why are so many Golden Age airplanes traveling the country together this fall?
- By Mary Collins
- Air & Space magazine, September 2003
NASM (SI Neg. #93-16120)
(Page 2 of 10)
Herrick prides himself on knowing detailed histories for each of the airplanes in his collection, which resides at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport outside Minneapolis. With the $60 million he netted in 1994 from the sale of his mail-order computer business, Zeos International, he’s built one of the largest private holdings of airplanes in the United States—40 in all, worth an estimated $7 million.
Last April, I asked him for a tour. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Herrick’s boyish face, Eddie Bauer khakis, and plain cotton shirt hardly give him the look of the elite collector. He drives a red Jeep with roll-up windows and a cracked windshield. For his new job, owner and chief operator of the Aviation Foundation of America, he keeps a simple office in a warehouse-like building near some railroad tracks.
We sped along the roads north of Minneapolis, passing miles of flat, brown landscape. When we swung into a parking lot next to a hangar, I spied a small sign over a side door—“Golden Wings Flying Museum.”
I have never been so awed by the beauty of a practical object. What a difference between the aircraft inside the hangar and the 727 I’d flown on from Washington, D.C. Herrick’s 1931 Stinson Tri-motor, deep blue with varnished wooden trim, reminded me that moving people through the air was once an artform. The collector delights in pointing out the craftsmen’s attention to detail on all of his purchases: the fine wicker seats and brass handles on a Travel Air 6000, the quaint wheel covers on a 1935 Waco with a cream-colored fuselage and elegant red trim.
It soon becomes clear that every one of his airplanes comes with a story. During the two days we spent together, he never stopped chatting about the one-of-a-kind Sikorsky flying boat that he’s spent $600,000 to salvage from the bottom of a lake in Alaska (and so far gotten just a piece of the airplane’s fabric to show for his efforts) or the number of calls he’s had to make to track down the owners of a particular airplane he really, really wants. The rancher in Idaho, the mechanic in Florida, the widow in California—all are characters in Herrick’s great airplane collecting adventure, and he takes great pleasure in reenacting the various parts. (On the way back from dinner, he played a mechanic sucking on a cigarette.)
“I was very interested in preserving history,” says Herrick, and the era he thought needed the most attention, he says, is the Golden Age of aviation. “That isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of people saving Wacos and Travel Airs, but what really interested me was those that had disappeared or almost disappeared. It’s like anything you develop an interest in—wine, cars—you start to refine it into categories you’re interested in. I decided I was going to save one-of-a-kind vintage airplanes from the Golden Age.”
He also decided that for the centennial year of flight, he was going to find an appropriate way to celebrate the contributions of the Golden Age, and that decision has brought him to his latest, greatest story. To tell as many people as possible about one of aviation’s great eras of invention, Herrick is re-creating the Commercial Airplane Reliability Tours, which flew between 1925 and 1931, were sponsored by Henry Ford, and stimulated a remarkable transformation in air travel.
Prior to 1925, people saw airplanes as something used only by a daring stunt pilot or barnstormer, not by an average Joe wanting to go someplace. A few entrepreneurs and industrialists saw the airplane’s potential: William Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Philip Wrigley, and Lester Armour all put up capital for airlines bidding on mail routes. But the capitalist most responsible for transforming the airplane from a novelty into a necessity was Henry Ford.