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)
Air & Space Magazine

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Compounding Dad’s hauling concerns, he couldn’t afford a truck. All he had were the family’s 1957 Chevy Suburban and a two-wheel trailer he had fashioned from the chassis of a delivery van. Though the Suburban was an old rusty clunker, it had proven itself two years earlier when hauling the heavy wings of an F7U Cutlass jet he had won for $200 on a Navy surplus bid. But the Suburban was no match for the long, heavy fuselage of the twin-engine jet. Instead, Dad hauled the fuselage home by stuffing it in a junked schoolbus (but that’s another story).

On a Saturday in October, Dad, my three older sisters, and I hit the road for Cincinnati before dawn. At 15, Rita was the oldest, with Barb and Margie filling in the four-year gap between Rita and me. The 200-mile drive to Cincinnati was a big adventure. We passed the early-morning hours by playing games and singing “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” (the Suburban had no radio).

On the down side, the Suburban, with five aboard, was cramped. Along with snacks, drinks, books, and blankets was all of Dad’s equipment: toolboxes, a stepladder, cables, chains, two bomb winches, a few jacks, and assorted wood blocks. In addition, there were spare parts for the Suburban plus several spare tires, since the bald ones Dad drove on were prone to let go. Still, except for having to rest our feet on rusty toolboxes, we were comfy.

When we reached Lunken Airport, Dad got permission to drive onto the ramp and we parked next to the B-25. Despite the story of the belly landing, the bomber, basically intact, was standing on its landing gear.

Dad’s new airplane was in civilian markings, with a Federal Aviation Agency (as it was then called) N-number on the rear fuselage. As a military-turned-civil aircraft, it was missing its gun turrets and bomb racks, though we would discover armor-plated pilot seats and a big steel ring where the top gun turret had been installed.

As expected, the belly landing had ripped much of the aluminum from the bottom of the fuselage. From watching war movies with Dad, I had expected the propeller blades to be bent and curled, but only the prop on the left engine showed this kind of damage. On the copilot side of the forward fuselage, “WILD CARGO” was crudely painted in big black letters.

“I just can’t believe it,” Dad grinned. “It’s like they made this plane to be hauled down the highway!” He showed me that all the major sections were bolted together in just the right places to allow damage-free disassembly. The forward fuselage could be unbolted in front of the wing, and the aft fuselage behind the wing. The outboard wings unbolted just beyond the engines, and even the engine nacelles unbolted slightly aft of the wing.

To Dad, the realization was like learning that the airplane would not be sacrificed to the gods. What he most hated about hauling airplanes was that some had to be cut to fit on the highway, and if a major section of the structure was cut, the airplane would be difficult to put back together and restore to flying condition.

Dad was still in mourning over his first Twin Mustang, the prototype XP-82. To haul it home, he destroyed the wing by cutting it with a torch—only later to discover bolts in a different part of the structure that would have made the torch job unnecessary. He was sick about it.

When he got his second Twin Mustang, he had learned his lesson and hauled it without any cutting. For every airplane that followed the XP-82, Dad studied the airframe carefully before deciding to cut anything.


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