Mr. Arango’s Aeroplanes

A World War I aircraft enthusiast’s collection tracks the evolution of the species.

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It’s a windless morning near the California town of Paso Robles, all birdsong and stillness—until an airplane shatters the calm with the startling brrruuuppp…brruuppp of its rotary engine. A Sopwith Camel crosses the fence and seems to pause, kestrel-like, before alighting on the grass. Rocking on the uneven ground, it taxis to the hangar, where, as soon as the propeller stops, a crewman places an oil tray beneath its nose and begins to wipe down its dripping cowl. The pilot extricates himself from the tiny cockpit and hops to the ground.

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Javier Arango speaks softly, with a faint accent of his native Spanish. Now 50, he was in high school when his father bought the first of what would become one of the world’s finest private collections of World War I aircraft.

“I’ve been interested in airplanes all my life,” says Arango, owner of the Aeroplane Collection and a Board member of the National Air and Space Museum. “Especially antique airplanes, for some strange reason. My original fascination was with the personalities of the first world war, and I read about the aces and what they did and how they flew. In the late 1970s my father and I met some people from Flabob airport, Jim Appleby and Mac McRiley, who built replicas of those old airplanes, and my father had McRiley build a Fokker Triplane for us. That airplane flew in 1981. But we had no idea it was going to turn into a ‘collection’!” That replica of the Fokker Dr.1 triplane of Manfred von Richthofen was less a historical artifact than a functional toy.

Externally, it resembled the original, but it had a modern engine, propeller, and brakes, a tailwheel rather than a skid, and a radio, so it could be operated among modern airplanes at conventional airports.

His interest piqued by the Fokker, Arango’s father next acquired a Sopwith Strutter replica built by Jim and Zona Appleby. The Strutter—so called because of the arrangement of one and a half struts supporting the upper wing—was a two-seater, much larger than the Fokker. It too had a modern engine, propeller, brakes, and internal structure of welded steel tubing that replaced wood and canvas. But it was not strictly a fighter, and Javier, by now a Harvard undergraduate majoring in the history of science, was principally interested in fighters. So they acquired a third replica, a Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a built by prolific replica builder Carl Swanson of Darien, Wisconsin—like the others, a pastiche of antique and modern components.

As he got older, Javier’s interest shifted from the pilots to the airplanes themselves, and he started asking questions like: Were the aircraft very different from what we fly today or were they similar? And how did their designs come about? “So we started collecting really as authentic as we could,” he says. “A friend gave me some very good advice about collecting: ‘Restrict yourself. Make sure that the collection tells a story.’ ”

The story the Arangos chose was the evolution of aeronautical technology during the four years of the war. All the combatants built airplanes at a feverish pace, nearly 150,000 of them, mostly fighters or two-seat reconnaissance aircraft, but nearly all were destroyed in combat or accidents. Designed for brief and often inglorious careers, airplanes were made of impermanent materials. Those that escaped hostile fire and takeoff or landing accidents deteriorated quickly in routine use or in storage.

The hectic pace of manufacture and attrition denied manufacturers the leisure to stand back, take stock, conduct research, and methodically conceive a novel prototype. On the other hand, their techniques and materials allowed new designs to be built and tested in weeks. Engineers improvised. Types came and went by the dozen. The choice by governments of which to procure in large numbers and which to ignore seems to have been ruled as often by caprice as by good sense. Some features that appear prescient from our perspective, like the all-metal construction and thick monoplane wing of the Junkers J.1, got nowhere, while others, such as the pointless triplane arrangement initiated in England and promptly copied in Germany, spread like infections before disappearing as suddenly as they had come.

The Dutchman Anthony Fokker was particularly prolific, once bringing eight different prototypes to a German procurement competition. When one of his offerings was passed over, he modified it overnight, re-submitted, and won. Though he was not a favorite of the German general staff, Fokker found ways to sell his airplanes, exploiting his acquaintance with aces like Oswald Boelcke and von Richthofen, who respected him because he was, like them, a virtuoso pilot. Fokker had a great success early in the war with his Eindecker, the so-called “Fokker Scourge” of the summer of 1915, and near the end with the D.VII, the only fighter of the era to have a noteworthy career after the Armistice.

The Arangos began their quest for authenticity by replacing the modern engines and propellers of the airplanes they had with original ones, and removing brakes, radios, and all the other gear required by modern airports. They moved the nascent collection to the family ranch near Paso Robles, about midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, built hangars, dedicated a 2,200-foot stretch of grass to a runway, and scouted the surrounding fields for emergency landing spots. Here, Javier could fly under conditions similar to those for which the airplanes had originally been built: grass fields, and readiness at any moment for an engine failure and a forced landing. Forced landings have been few—one occurred when a pushrod from a rotary’s cylinder came adrift and began to tear up the cowling—but to avoid tempting fate, the more valuable airplanes are dismantled and put on a truck if they need to make the four-mile trip to the Paso Robles airport.

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