The Soplata Airplane Sanctuary
Of the 20 stray aircraft his father rescued, the author remembers that first bomber best.
- By Wally Soplata
- Air & Space magazine, November 2007
(Page 2 of 6)
Scrapped? To Dad, the thought was unbearable. He tracked down the owner who was going to scrap the B-25 and convinced the man to sell it to him for $500.
Now Dad faced the problem of getting the airplane home without destroying it. Since none of the aircraft Dad acquired was flyable, each one had to be hauled on a highway, so the size of each aircraft was a major consideration. Most of the airplanes he hauled were fighters or trainers—relatively small. Even though the B-25 was much smaller than, say, a B-17, it was still a big airplane.
Compounding Dad’s hauling concerns, he couldn’t afford a truck. All he had were the family’s 1957 Chevy Suburban and a two-wheel trailer he had fashioned from the chassis of a delivery van. Though the Suburban was an old rusty clunker, it had proven itself two years earlier when hauling the heavy wings of an F7U Cutlass jet he had won for $200 on a Navy surplus bid. But the Suburban was no match for the long, heavy fuselage of the twin-engine jet. Instead, Dad hauled the fuselage home by stuffing it in a junked schoolbus (but that’s another story).
On a Saturday in October, Dad, my three older sisters, and I hit the road for Cincinnati before dawn. At 15, Rita was the oldest, with Barb and Margie filling in the four-year gap between Rita and me. The 200-mile drive to Cincinnati was a big adventure. We passed the early-morning hours by playing games and singing “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” (the Suburban had no radio).
On the down side, the Suburban, with five aboard, was cramped. Along with snacks, drinks, books, and blankets was all of Dad’s equipment: toolboxes, a stepladder, cables, chains, two bomb winches, a few jacks, and assorted wood blocks. In addition, there were spare parts for the Suburban plus several spare tires, since the bald ones Dad drove on were prone to let go. Still, except for having to rest our feet on rusty toolboxes, we were comfy.
When we reached Lunken Airport, Dad got permission to drive onto the ramp and we parked next to the B-25. Despite the story of the belly landing, the bomber, basically intact, was standing on its landing gear.
Dad’s new airplane was in civilian markings, with a Federal Aviation Agency (as it was then called) N-number on the rear fuselage. As a military-turned-civil aircraft, it was missing its gun turrets and bomb racks, though we would discover armor-plated pilot seats and a big steel ring where the top gun turret had been installed.
As expected, the belly landing had ripped much of the aluminum from the bottom of the fuselage. From watching war movies with Dad, I had expected the propeller blades to be bent and curled, but only the prop on the left engine showed this kind of damage. On the copilot side of the forward fuselage, “WILD CARGO” was crudely painted in big black letters.