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The Magical History Tour

Why are so many Golden Age airplanes traveling the country together this fall?

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GREG HERRICK, A COLLECTOR OF AIRPLANES FROM THE PERIOD BETWEEN THE TWO WORLD WARS, HAS A STORY TO TELL. He puts his beer down, raises his hands like paws, and growls like the junkyard dog he found guarding an airplane stashed on a ranch in Caldwell, Idaho.

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“The dog jumped up against the car door,” he says. “There was no way I was getting out of that car. So I tossed him a peanut butter cracker. He sniffed it, then gobbled it up. I got out of the car real slowly and said, ‘Sit!’ When the dog sat, I gave him some more crackers. I was all set.”

After several years of phone calls and casual visits, Herrick had thought this time he might be able to convince the elderly cropduster and ranch owner, Gene Frank, to give up the beat-up jewel lying in the grass behind the wire fence, the “No Trespassing” signs, and the dog: the oldest Ford Tri-motor in existence.

But when Frank pulled up in his truck and saw his guard dog sitting down on the job, he reached for his shotgun.

“That damn dog!” he exclaimed.

“I shouted at him to stop,” Herrick says. “I told him I’d won the dog over with crackers.”

Maybe Frank decided to take the dog’s placid reaction to Herrick as a good sign: After years of trying, Herrick finally got the Tri-motor. The rancher eventually sold him several airplanes, including a 1929 Keystone-Loening Commuter K-84 and a Cunningham-Hall PT-6F. “Even though he thinks of me as a son, he wept when he sold them to me,” Herrick says.

He understands why Frank was so attached to the airplanes; collectors sometimes see a value in objects others miss. For Herrick, the airplanes represent an era in aviation history of unbounded energy and optimism. In the 1920s and ’30s as many as 180 companies churned out airplanes. But many of the models introduced during that period are gone. The Keystone-Loening K-84, for example, is the last of its type. It is one of the trademark biplane flying boats of Grover Loening, who designed the first short-hulled flying boat while working for the Wright brothers. When Loening opened his own company, he competed for Navy contracts (Leroy Grumman was one of his employees), but also built civil craft. Herrick’s K-84 spent its heyday working for small Alaskan airlines before winding up in Gene Frank’s field in 1954.

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.

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