Mr. Arango’s Aeroplanes

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

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The Arangos engaged Chuck Wentworth, who had taught Javier to fly the Fokker Triplane replica at Flabob, first to rebuild airplanes and then to build others from scratch. With the help of Wentworth, who incorporated at Paso Robles in 1991 as Antique Aero, the collection grew, acquiring or building a string of Nieuports—models 11, 17, 24bis, and 28—as well as additional Sopwiths and Fokkers. It also snagged a few outliers, including two Blériot XIs—the model in which inventor Louis Blériot had made the first aerial crossing of the English Channel—and a non-flyable pre-war Fokker Spinne, whose Dutch name, meaning “Spider,” referred to the web of wires bracing its warping wings. Recently, it has added a SPAD XIII replica built by Roger Freeman of Vintage Aviation Services, and a Wentworth-built Sopwith Snipe, both displaying the increased strength, bulk, and mass made possible by the Mercedes and Hispano-Suiza liquid-cooled engines that began to replace the lighter but less powerful rotaries late in the war. Two of Arango’s airplanes, the Eindecker (the name means “monoplane”), with a 100-horsepower Gnome, and the Sopwith Tabloid are the only representatives of their types that are accurate and flyable. The collection includes two originals: a 1917 Sopwith Camel that is being restored to flying condition with a 130-hp Clerget engine, and a Blériot built by the Vandersarl brothers of Colorado in 1911.

Aficionados of World War I airplanes form a small but fractious community. They debate authenticity: Is this airplane more or less authentic than that one? What are its shortcomings? What shade of red was von Richthofen’s triplane? Should modern fabric coverings, bolts, and cables be allowed? Is 4130 aircraft steel an acceptable deviation from the mild steel of the originals? Such minute questions arouse surprising passions. “I have seen many very nasty and very personal encounters among these different groups,” Arango says.

Although manufacturers used different techniques for framing and bracing, building a World War I replica from scratch is much like building a balsa-and-silk model airplane. The fabrication techniques were simple, so cabinet-makers and tinsmiths could readily adapt their skills to turning out thousands of airplanes. A proper respect for authenticity requires, however, that all of the work be done in the way it was a century ago.

There is little agreement about the proper use of words like replica, reproduction, restoration, and accurate, authentic, and original. It may seem intuitively obvious that a reproduction built today, no matter how accurate, is not an authentic World War I airplane. Just a few dozen airplanes built during World War I exist, mostly in museums; only a handful still fly. But the matter is complicated by the fact that even the surviving original airplanes have invariably been repaired or restored with various degrees of attention to authenticity. An airplane built today using original plans, materials, and methods might be more historically accurate than a surviving original that has been improperly restored. To further compound the problem, not all original examples of a given type were identical: Thousands were built; they used different engines, different factories adjusted the structures to suit their tools and methods; and when they reached the field, pilots modified them yet again. There is no single definitive Sopwith Camel, Fokker D.VII, or Nieuport 28 against which to measure a modern copy or restoration.

“There are three levels of authenticity,” Arango says, speaking of the 23 airplanes in his own collection. “The original Fokker from 1981 and the first S.E.5, those are the lowest kinds—the lookalikes that you use for movies in Hollywood. The next level is three or four airplanes that were like those, but that we have retrofitted back to nearly their original state. The structure is not 100 percent, but they have the correct engine, the correct weight, the correct aerodynamics, the correct look and sound. The others are pretty much as authentic as we can get.” Arango accepts certain deviations—for safety’s sake, modern seat belts and coverings in lieu of explosively flammable nitrate-doped linen—but the structures, fittings, and engines are correct in every other detail.

As the desire for historical accuracy grew, says Arango, the fieldwork and research required grew with it. For Sopwiths, detailed original plans are still available. Not so for Fokkers. Originals in museums can be inspected and measured to re-create plans. When there are no surviving originals, as is the case with Fokker’s Triplane and D.VI, dimensions must be derived from photographs and construction details inferred from other Fokker products.

Original instruments and other components can still be found, sometimes in odd places. “You know where we get the magneto switches for the British airplanes? You can go to old British hotels, and that’s the light switch,” Arango says. “It’s exactly the same fixture that they’re using now.”

Engines are a perennial challenge. Arango’s airplanes all have or are awaiting original engines, and all but one is in flying condition. Most of the airplanes in the collection are outfitted with rotary engines. Not to be confused with the modern Wankel-style rotary, World War I rotaries look like radials until they start, and you find that not just the propeller but, improbably, the entire engine spins. One of their peculiarities was lack of a throttle; pilots decreased the power output by cutting the ignition to various cylinders with a “blip switch.” Although these engines were manufactured in the hundreds of thousands, very few still exist. The 110-hp LeRhône, which would be the correct engine for many types, is in particularly short supply.

The collector’s dream is to find, tucked away in the back of a barn, an intact airplane. It seldom happens anymore; the barns have all been searched. But Arango has had that time-capsule experience. “A couple of years ago we got a phone call from someone who said: ‘I know you have these airplanes, are you interested in an engine? It belonged to my father or grandfather or whatever and it’s in a case.’ And the case was the original case. We opened it and there was a 160 Gnome inside—from 80 years ago, untouched.”

Like airplanes, engines can be reproduced to perfection. For several years a Paso Robles machinist, Richard Galli, has been creating for Arango a set of 10 precise copies of an original 110-hp LeRhône. The work generates mountains of metal chips, liberating, for example, a 35-pound crankcase from a 650-pound slug of steel. The manufacture of the required 90 cylinders—an inhumanly tedious task—has been outsourced: They are being hewn out of steel bar stock in New Zealand on computer-controlled machines owned by film director Peter Jackson’s Vintage Aviator Ltd., which reconstructs World War I aircraft.

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