And Then There Was One

Ten airplanes that are the last still flying.

Northrop Flying Wing (© Philip Makanna/Ghosts)
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Known on Pan Am’s island-hopping routes as “Baby Clippers,” only two were privately owned: Harold Vanderbilt’s opulent air yacht, and the stripped-down, flush-riveted N440, which was delivered to Howard Hughes in 1937. N440 was Hughes’ pet plane; he used it to practice water landings in Nevada’s Lake Mead and to give unlogged flight training to Hollywood starlets. He kept it ready 24/7 in a guarded hangar in Houston until he died. The late Ron Van Kregten, an aircraft collector, acquired the S-43 in 1977, and veteran pilot Jesse Bootenhoff began providing rare glimpses at fly-ins. The mystique of Hughes’ amphibian captivated even seen-it-all Oshkosh crowds. “They were lining up so fast to get in, I couldn’t get out,” says Bootenhoff. Baby Clippers star in Art Deco travel posters, but the only one still flying maintains a low profile at Brazoria County Airport in Texas. “Most people have no idea one still exists,” says Bootenhoff.

Cinema II Glider

For idle youth during the Great Depression, a 20:1 glide ratio was a positive economic indicator. Works Progress Administration vocational classes distributed kit versions of the Frankfort Sailplane Company’s popular Cinema glider to unemployed teenagers across the country. After assembly, students got a paycheck—and flight time with an instructor. Only Dean Kramer’s two-seat Cinema (made during the WPA era) still flies. NC24185 was grounded for 40 years before a revamp; it’s now “as original and authentic as we can get it,” says Kramer. When it came time to paint the glider, he followed the original color scheme of burgundy and silver. “It draws a good deal of attention in a lineup of basic-white modern gliders,” he notes. Though his restoration of the sole surviving Cinema has earned international recognition, Kramer considers himself a temporary caretaker: “For me, bringing it back to life for the next generation is what it’s about.”

Vertol H-21

“That thing saved my life,” Vietnam veterans occasionally tell Mark DiCiero. The first chopper in the helicopter war, CH-21B assault helicopters were sent to Vietnam as early as December 1961. Its stretched, bent fuselage inspired the nickname “Flying Banana.” Bell UH-1 “Hueys” soon replaced Flying Bananas in the assault role, but H-21s continued to fly troop transport and medical evacuation missions. “It pulled a lot of people out of bad situations,” says DiCiero. N64606 had already been written off by one major museum when DiCiero found it in 1989 in Chino, California. “They pretty much assured us there was no way we would ever get it flying, nor keep it flying,” recalls DiCiero. Ten thousand restoration hours later, it became the first of a vintage fleet at Classic Rotors Museum in Ramona, California—and is still the last Banana flying.

F-86A Sabre

“The first of the first,” Cliff Spink, who flies the last one, calls it. America’s founding fighter jet, the 1948 A-series Sabre, debuted the swept wing, set a world speed record, then broke the grip of MiG air superiority in the Korean War. Later, more refined variants would feature fully power-assisted controls and a more advanced tail design, but the 554 A-model aircraft occupy a distinct niche: Jet-propelled combat was never so no-frills or hands-on again. Only no. 178, now designated G-SABR, still flies. Restored by former P-51 Mustang pilot Ben Hall in 1971, it was acquired by Golden Apple Trust in the United Kingdom in 1990. “You instantly sense that the airplane is a thoroughbred,” says Spink. G-SABR is a Yankee star at European airshows, and Spink, a retired RAF air marshal, wants its airworthiness to endure for posterity. “It’s not ours,” he says. “None of these aircraft are. They belong to the future.”

Boeing B-29 Superfortress

The enormous wings of N529B were shading a China Lake, California boneyard when Commemorative Air Force member Victor Agather learned of the bomber’s existence in 1971. Agather had been looking for a B-29 to restore, and he was thrilled when fellow CAF member and commercial pilot Roger Baker spotted the B-29 during an overflight. Agather financed a four-year CAF restoration of the aircraft, and the restoration team christened the bomber Fifi after his wife. To underwrite its 400-gallon-per-hour fuel appetite, he proposed an unorthodox solution: public tours. “Nobody was doing that in 1975,” says Agather’s son Neils. The only Superfortress flying has paid its way ever since by thrilling thousands at airshows around the country. “People come and say, ‘My grandfather flew one in the war. Can I sit where he sat?’ ” says Neils. After 30 summers, the four 2,200-horsepower engines are marginal, and continued airworthiness depends on a CAF fundraising drive for new powerplants. Fortunately, Texas industrialist Joe Jamison has stepped forward with $2 million, and Neils is confident more of Fifi's fans will pitch in: “Anyone will tell you, she’s the queen of the fleet.”

Gloster Gauntlet

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