And Then There Was One

Ten airplanes that are the last still flying.

Northrop Flying Wing (© Philip Makanna/Ghosts)
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The slogan “Keep ’em flying” first appeared on War Production Board posters to inspire aircraft factory workers during World War II. To the delight of today’s aviation fans, dozens of organizations have been formed with mission statements that include that very sentiment. Individual pilots have also taken up the cause, and although vintage aircraft owners don’t restore and fly their airplanes at airshows out of altruism alone, many of them describe a sense of stewardship. Aviation, as a pastime, seems to inspire a commitment to preservation.

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We have profiled 10 aircraft whose owners have devoted the time, effort, and money to keep them flying. Our definition of “flying” requires that each aircraft be certified airworthy by the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States or the Civil Aviation Authority in the United Kingdom, and the aircraft has to have some record of recent flight and the potential for future flight. The eclectic group of aircraft that follows is by no means comprehensive, and we invite readers to notify us of other aircraft that should be included.

—The Editors

Northrop Flying Wing

Northrop Aircraft built four one-third-scale N-9M flying wing prototypes in the early 1940s to prove the feasibility of its B-35 bomber. When that program was axed, the remaining prototypes were ordered destroyed. Planes of Fame Museum founder Ed Maloney liberated the last one by trucking it out of California’s Edwards Air Force Base as scrap. After the little yellow airplane spent 30 years in storage, vintage aircraft restorer Ron Hackworth led a 13-year reconstruction. Working Saturdays in a succession of warehouses and hangars around southern California, volunteers rebuilt the mostly wood aircraft. In 1994, N-9MB took flight with former Planes of Fame president Don Lykins at the controls. “We had the benefit of advice from some of the original pilots,” says Hackworth of those early flights, “so there were no surprises.” Today, Hackworth regularly pilots N-9MB for Planes of Fame in Chino, California. “I've never flown it anywhere where the reaction was anything less than complete amazement,” he says.

Grumman F4F Wildcat

They found it with one tire inflated, cockpit and flight controls intact, and a battery that could still hold a charge. By the standards of salvaged warbirds, the Wildcat was almost pristine, especially since it had spent 47 years on the bottom of Lake Michigan after a U.S. Navy training accident in 1944. Embalmed by the low oxygen level of the frigid lake water, “it looked like it had come back through a time warp,” says owner/pilot Steve Craig. Grumman produced nearly 2,000 of the rugged fighters, but stout hardware is not the Wildcat’s only legacy. “It’s the heroism demonstrated by Navy and Marine pilots who flew F4Fs during the first two years of the war,” says Craig. The only F4F now flying, NX12660 just does it: Last summer’s airshow itinerary reads like a NASCAR tour. “People appreciate what it represents,” says Craig. “It’s literally a memorial.”

Boeing 247

All-metal, low-wing, and streamlined, the 247 was the world’s first modern airliner. The 10-passenger 247, with reclining seats, soundproofed cabin, and a 20-hour coast-to-coast timetable, launched air travel’s golden era in 1933. Three decades later, NC13347 languished at a cropdusting airstrip in Taft, California, ingloriously deteriorating from insecticide exposure. In 1980 Seattle’s Museum of Flight began a 14-year restoration. “We tore it apart and rebuilt it from the ground up,” says Frank Leathley, a former Boeing engineer and a volunteer on the Boeing-supported project (see “One Good Year,” Feb./Mar. 1997). Featuring vintage United Airlines “Mainliner” colors and a 1939 interior (“More legroom than you get today,” says Leathley), the last 247 is flown by another volunteer, Boeing 787 chief project pilot Mike Carriker. “It’s an appreciation of what it was once like to really fly,” he says of the low, slow experience. When Carriker test-flies the 787 this year, he’ll be captain of Boeing’s newest and oldest airliners.

Sikorsky S-43

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