[Update: The tallies are in. Chuck Greenhill’s 1939 Grumman Duck Oshkosh) took first in our online poll, followed by the 1939 Spartan Executive and the Duck. See below for details on all the worthy contenders.]
From This Story
Any visitor to an aviation museum has probably had the same experience. Mine took place many years ago at the Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, when I stood in front of a Douglas C-47, the military version of the DC-3. A curator told me its story: It had dropped paratroopers into France on the first night of the 1944 Normandy invasion and resupplied them in the days following. It was one of the first airplanes enlisted to deliver food to Berliners when the Soviets blockaded their city in 1949. It flew for a few years Stateside doing this and that. In its last job, it suffered the abuse of student pilots in CH-54 helicopters: More than a few dropped it trying to learn to lift it. Though it had survived D-Day and the Berlin Airlift, it was in a sorry state, the museum curator told me, when his restoration team got it. But there it was, chin lifted in that stance DC-3s are famous for, restored and exquisite in its olive drab paint and black-and-white invasion stripes. And even though I told myself that what I was looking at was merely a collection of aluminum sheets riveted together (into an admittedly very pleasing shape), I felt elated that it had “survived.” What’s more, I thought it looked “valiant,” and a man standing next to me thought so too. He added “proud.”
We’re nuts, of course, but so what? Why not lay on these objects the human emotions of struggles and triumphs? They help us understand history, and, maybe more important, feel it.
Nothing celebrates the emotional power of airplanes more enthusiastically than the People’s Choice competition of the National Aviation Heritage Invitational, created by Rolls-Royce Vice President Ken Perich. For 10 years, Rolls-Royce North America Inc., the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Reno Air Racing Foundation have sponsored a competition for aircraft owners who restore vintage airplanes to encourage the preservation of aviation history. Trophies are given in several categories for the most historically accurate restoration. But one trophy—the People’s Choice—rewards charisma. What earns the votes is almost always the airplane’s story.
This summer at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Oshkosh, Wisconsin fly-in, six past champions are vying for the hearts and votes of aviation fans in what the Rolls-Royce team calls the “National Aviation Hall of Fame Best of the Best.”
These are their stories.
Celebrity - Lockheed P-38 Lightning
If trophies were awarded for fame, the winner would surely be Glacier Girl, a Lockheed P-38 that has been drawing crowds at airshows for the past five years. Just about everyone knows the story of the airplane’s 1942 emergency landing in Greenland, its burial under 260 feet of ice, its miraculous 1992 rescue, and its award-winning restoration (see “Glacier Girl,” Feb./Mar. 2004), crowned by the completion of its mission: a flight to England begun 65 years earlier.
Glacier Girl is a P-38F, the third revision of the fighter that Kelly Johnson and his team continued to improve throughout the war. Despite being heavier than earlier models, it was also a little faster, able to reach 395 mph. (Later models of the Lightning pushed past 400 mph in level flight, the first U.S. fighters able to do so.) Though no Luftwaffe pilot was ever happy to see a P-38, the fighter’s reputation was made in the Pacific, where pilots like highest-scoring U.S. ace Richard Bong bested Japanese Zeros.
The Lightning is sometimes overshadowed by the Mustang to which it handed off the job of escorting bombers to Germany. But though the North American P-51 is considered by many the more capable fighter, the odd-looking P-38 somehow has more panache.