The Soplata Airplane Sanctuary

Of the 20 stray aircraft his father rescued, the author remembers that first bomber best

North American B-25 Mitchell, 1944. (USAF)
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DESPITE HIS HUMBLE BEGINNINGS as the penniless son of Czech immigrants, my father, Walter Soplata, amassed an extraordinary collection of warbirds. He grew up fascinated by airplanes during the Great Depression, using whatever money he could scrape up to build balsa model aircraft. When World War II broke out, a stutter disqualified him from military service.

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Dad took a job in a Cleveland, Ohio scrapyard, junking thousands of warplane engines that were suddenly declared surplus. In this job, he foresaw the near extinction of the nation’s historic aircraft. He felt he had to take action.

On land in Newbury, east of Cleveland, he began his airplane collection in 1947 with a late-1920s American Eagle biplane. A Vultee BT-15 trainer was next, and then in the early 1950s the big iron: a Vought/Goodyear FG-1D Corsair followed by another but much rarer F2G Corsair. The second Corsair, with an experimental brute-power R-4360 engine, had taken first place in the 1947 Cleveland National Air Races. My father went for the rare types: a prototype North American XP-82 Twin Mustang, then an F-82E Twin Mustang with Allison engines, an early Jet Age Chance-Vought F7U Cutlass, and a prototype of the Douglas AD Skyraider series.

In the early 1950s, my parents had four daughters and me, the only child who would pursue a career in aviation. I started in general aviation, then became an Air Force pilot and, later, an airline pilot. I cut my teeth on a twin-engine T-50 Cessna Bobcat—the type Sky King flew in the early years of the eponymous TV series—that I helped my father dismantle and haul by trailer in 1961. But of all the aircraft we dragged home, I recall most clearly a down-and-out B-25: my father’s first bomber.

One day in 1964, Dad and I were glued to our black-and-white TV set watching Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, in which Spencer Tracy played Jimmy Doolittle leading 16 B-25 crews from the deck of the USS Hornet to bomb Japan. Dad was like a kid excited by a commercial for a toy he just had to have. He wanted a B-25.

When you consider that our home was constructed primarily of lumber from warbird engine crates discarded at a smelter where he’d worked a few years earlier, it was amazing he could think such a thing. That job had provided a meager income, and then he turned to carpentry. The housing market proved sporadic, but Dad had nonetheless managed to start an airplane collection that was already impressive. My sisters and I had the perfect clubhouse: a Fairchild C-82 Boxcar fuselage like the one in the original Flight of the Phoenix movie.

Dad rarely paid more than a few hundred bucks for an airplane. In the early 1960s, a warbird’s price was usually determined by whatever its weight would bring at the scrapyard. Regardless of our dismal financial situation, when Dad pined for a particular treasure, it was likely he would get one. Sure enough, before long a visitor touring Dad’s collection had a tip.

“There’s a B-25 down at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati that made a gear-up belly landing a few years ago,” he said. “I heard they’re going to cut it up and scrap it soon.”

Scrapped? To Dad, the thought was unbearable. He tracked down the owner who was going to scrap the B-25 and convinced the man to sell it to him for $500.

Now Dad faced the problem of getting the airplane home without destroying it. Since none of the aircraft Dad acquired was flyable, each one had to be hauled on a highway, so the size of each aircraft was a major consideration. Most of the airplanes he hauled were fighters or trainers—relatively small. Even though the B-25 was much smaller than, say, a B-17, it was still a big airplane.


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