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 4 of 6)
We got off the wing, and soon Dad had his wobbly stepladder under it. Good news and bad: An oil cooler was located at each wing joint, with an access panel under the cooler. But the cooler bled thick, black oil when removed, and after the cooler was out, we still could not reach half the nuts for the wing bolts.
Dad cut the rivets that held the air ducts for the oil cooler. With the ducts removed, I was able to snake my skinny shoulders through the oil cooler opening and into the wing. Struggling with claustrophobia, plus the fear I’d get stuck inside the jagged structure, I spent hours contorted in the wing as I moved my wrench from one nut to the next while Dad spun the bolts out from outside.
When it came time to pull the last bolts and remove the wing, we had another problem that would confront us on most airplane-hauling endeavors. We didn’t have a crane or lift. To solve the problem this time, Dad made a pair of H-shaped wood frames to hold the wing as the bolts were removed. A genius at making a hard job easy by constructing something cheap and simple, Dad connected the H-frames to the trailer in a way that allowed them to fold down to the trailer. Using an old bomb winch to control the rate at which the H-frames folded, we lowered the wing to the trailer. Now we were halfway done with this part of the ordeal.
We worked on the bomber every weekend that October and on into November. Many local aviation enthusiasts stopped by, and from them we learned a lot about the bomber, including the story of how the B-25 had ended up at Lunken nearly two years earlier.
As the story went, a man from Louisiana used the bomber to take a diverse collection of exotic animals from city to city—thus the name Wild Cargo. En route to Cincinnati for a show, the right engine had failed. The pilot reported to Lunken Tower that his landing gear was inoperative and declared an emergency. While the pilot circled Lunken to burn fuel, the copilot parachuted out, an event that was captured on camera by local news teams. Despite having an engine out, no landing gear, and an extreme crosswind, the pilot, by all accounts, made a perfect landing.
After the wings, we tackled the rear fuselage. Though it wasn’t that heavy, it was so long that we had more fuselage hanging off the trailer than riding on it. Making matters worse, we had the narrow end (tail gunner position) of the fuselage on the front of Dad’s two-wheel trailer. Though this arrangement allowed us to get the narrow tailcone up close to the Suburban’s rear doors to allow room for turning, it also meant the wide and heavy end of the fuselage was sticking far beyond the back of the trailer. On the highway, the load handled badly and was prone to sway left and right, limiting our speed to about 40 mph.
On another trip, we put both of the airplane’s twin-row R-2600 radial engines on the trailer together. Though the load was well balanced, the engines were very heavy. It was bad enough we didn’t have a truck, but even worse, Dad’s Suburban wasn’t too powerful. It sported a straight-six engine with a three-speed transmission that shifted on the steering column; today, people wouldn’t use a vehicle like that to pull a jet ski. Here we were dragging a World War II bomber 200 miles.
The last 20 miles of our journey consisted of some big hills in Ohio’s Chagrin Valley, and Dad was nervous, with good reason. While pulling the pair of B-25 engines up one of the hills, he had trouble down-shifting into first gear. Halfway up the hill we almost stalled out. With the Suburban built before the age of power brakes and no brakes on the trailer, I later had nightmares about those heavy bomber engines taking us for a rip-roaring backward ride down that long steep hill.