AT THE END OF JANUARY 1945, A P-51 MUSTANG, one of about 8,000 built by North American Aviation during World War II, rolled off the assembly line in Inglewood, California. At about the same time, a young fighter pilot, Harrison B. "Bud" Tordoff, finished his first tour of duty in England and went home to the States on leave.
Tordoff had been a 19-year-old sophomore at Cornell University, studying ornithology, when he enlisted in the fall of 1942. "I had never been in a plane in my life," he recalls. "I was eager, thrilled with the poem 'High Flight,' and hoping to avoid fighting on the ground—completely naive." Having depth perception that "wasn't up to Air Force standards," he passed the vision test by observing the settings used on the testing apparatus by the candidate ahead of him. Nevertheless, during his first 69 missions he shot down three Bf 109 fighters, two of them on his very first encounter with the Luftwaffe.
When he returned to duty on March 1, 1945, he found the brand-new P-51D waiting for him.
Tordoff had christened his first airplane, a P-47, Anne after a girlfriend whom he'd met just before shipping out for his first tour. When he switched to the P-51, he had cooled on Anne and wanted a new name. It happened that in 1944 a B-17 called Murder Inc. had gone down in Germany, and Nazi propaganda had made hay out of the name. Thereafter, the Eighth Air Force required official approval of airplane names. "I thought I would bug them with an unfamiliar name," he says. He drew on his knowledge of ornithology: "I liked the scientific name of the hoopoe, Upupa epops, for its silliness, and the bird seemed appropriate, given its seeming weak flight, bizarre appearance, and untidy nesting habits." Some poor bureaucrat may have spent hours trying to tease a double entendre out of the Latin name, but it was approved without comment.
During the six weeks that remained before the war in Europe ended, Tordoff shot down two more German airplanes, one of the kills a lucky strike he got by hitting the engine of a fleeing Messerschmitt Me 262 at long range.
At the war's end, Tordoff and the -51 parted ways. He returned to Cornell in September of 1945 and, having taken courses while in the Army, graduated the following year. Upupa epops remained in Europe. Sold to Sweden in 1947, the Mustang served there until 1954, when it was purchased by the Dominican Republic.
In 1999, a shadowy consortium of airline pilots in the Pacific Northwest bought the P-51 from Florida warbird dealer Brian O'Farrell, who had acquired Upupa epops among a lot of retired Dominican Mustangs in 1984. The so-called consortium—really a front for an anonymous collector—delivered it to WestPac Restorations in Rialto, California, where it remained for two and a half years before being flown to Arlington, Washington, in livery exactly matching that in which it had left the North American factory in 1944.
There, on August 19, 2003, Bud Tordoff, after a distinguished career as an ornithologist—his specialty, appropriately, was falcons—met Upupa epops again.
Tordoff had come to Arlington at the invitation of Paul G. Allen, co-founder, with Bill Gates, of Microsoft. Allen was the mystery collector. Too many times a millionaire to be worth counting, he is also a philanthropist, and fond of creating public museums of things for which he has a passion. At the foot of Seattle's Space Needle, a Frank Gehry-designed building that resembles a pile of brightly colored laundry billowing in a high wind houses his interactive rock music museum, the Experience Music Project, as well as his Museum of Science Fiction. In addition to rock and roll and sci-fi, Allen had long been enamored of aviation and wanted to collect and exhibit examples from the 1940s and '50s heyday of fighter development, especially the advanced German aircraft of World War II. And he was prepared to spend some money to do it.
In 1998 Allen had engaged Jeff Thomas, an American Airlines 777 captain and aircraft collector, as a consultant. The sandy-haired, youthful-looking Thomas was the son of a Navy mechanic who had worked on Wildcats and Hellcats in the Pacific. Thomas had done some professional restoring himself, and owned Vintage Wings, a historic aircraft restoration business.