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The Soplata Airplane Sanctuary

Of the 20 stray aircraft his father rescued, the author remembers that first bomber best.

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.

The center section of the wing with both engine nacelles, both main landing gear, and the bomb bay proved to be the heaviest and most unstable load. Still, it represented the last load. Approaching the dreaded hill, Dad shifted into first gear while we were still on flat pavement. To our relief, the Suburban’s little six was up to the task, though just barely.

Well past midnight when we got home, Dad cruised from our dirt driveway out into the field next to it. Under the light of the stars, he parked the trailer and center wing behind the cockpit section, to some extent reuniting the shadowy silhouettes. And with that, a stray-dog B-25, once hours away from the scrapman’s torch, had found a home.

We hauled airplanes through the early 1970s. We brought home a second, nearly airworthy B-25 in 1966. Also that year, we got a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fuselage, a North American F-86 Sabre fuselage, and a complete Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, an early pre-ejection-seat model. Oddest of those we hauled that year, a wrecked B-57 Canberra bomber was dreadfully difficult to dismantle in the bitter cold winter.

In my father, Mom saw a man driven by a strong work ethic both in his carpenter job and in his passion for airplanes. The only time she put up a fight was over the purchase of yet another FG-1D Corsair in 1960, which was likely the best deal he ever made. He paid $200 for an aircraft in excellent shape. Except for tattered fabric, it was virtually airworthy. Mom had a fit because he hadn’t told her in advance. Her first clue was seeing one of the blue outboard wings coming down the dirt road on the trailer behind our clunker Chevy.

Mom has often told me that when women at church ask her why she puts up with her husband’s collection, her standard reply is “At least I always know where my husband is.”

The year 1966 appeared to be the time when military administrators suddenly discovered they no longer had World War II aircraft for the air museums they were building. Navy and Marine Corps representatives came by, all but begging Dad for his FG-1D Corsair.

Dad was dismayed by the military’s lack of foresight, and their stricter regulations. By 1966, surplus military aircraft could not be released to civilians unless they had been demilitarized, which essentially meant cut up into small pieces. Had such a policy existed in the 1940s and 50s, it’s likely that Corsairs, Hellcats, and Thunderbolts could have ended up like the Douglas TBD Devastator. Not a single Devastator remains. Thus, despite the wrecked condition of the B-57, and the even worse condition of a Convair B-36 bomber Dad got after the Air Force destroyed, or demilitarized it, he acquired these and other shattered airplanes, to some degree, as monuments to the government’s wholesale destruction of its obsolete military aircraft. Dad continues to hang on to the wreckage of two U.S. Navy Blue Angel jets, an F-11 Tiger and F-4 Phantom II, that crashed during airshows.

His engine collection numbers 50 or so. He once had the first engine ever made by the Allison Engine Company, which he happened to get when a scrap dealer friend didn’t have the heart to scrap the rare engine—he knew Dad would give it a home. It’s now on display at the New England Air Museum at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut.

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