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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Our quick study of the B-25 concluded, Dad went into General Patton mode and got all of us busy turning wrenches and screwdrivers. Usually I was the only one with him on trips for airplanes, but on this trip I appreciated having my sisters along; they proved to be a big help, especially Barb, who knew wrenches, sockets, and other tools by name, size, and use.

Dad would come to describe this first trip as “the easy load.” We removed all the small components— tail section, wing flaps, ailerons, landing gear doors and bomb bay doors—loaded them on the trailer, and took them home.

Dad had picked his words well: Nothing was easy after that. The first major disassembly we tackled was removing the outboard wings. From the outside, the wings looked relatively simple to remove, and Dad took just me to get them.

Along the top and bottom of the wing joint, a long row of bolts stuck into the wing, with their 9/16-inch heads protruding. Easy job, we thought. We got on top of the left outboard wing. Dad started on the first bolt, which turned without much difficulty, but that was it. It turned and turned and turned but didn’t even begin to come out. He put his socket on another bolt, and another, with the same result. “Don’t tell me they didn’t put self-holding nut plates inside the wing!” he exclaimed.

We got off the wing, and soon Dad had his wobbly stepladder under it. Good news and bad: An oil cooler was located at each wing joint, with an access panel under the cooler. But the cooler bled thick, black oil when removed, and after the cooler was out, we still could not reach half the nuts for the wing bolts.

Dad cut the rivets that held the air ducts for the oil cooler. With the ducts removed, I was able to snake my skinny shoulders through the oil cooler opening and into the wing. Struggling with claustrophobia, plus the fear I’d get stuck inside the jagged structure, I spent hours contorted in the wing as I moved my wrench from one nut to the next while Dad spun the bolts out from outside.

When it came time to pull the last bolts and remove the wing, we had another problem that would confront us on most airplane-hauling endeavors. We didn’t have a crane or lift. To solve the problem this time, Dad made a pair of H-shaped wood frames to hold the wing as the bolts were removed. A genius at making a hard job easy by constructing something cheap and simple, Dad connected the H-frames to the trailer in a way that allowed them to fold down to the trailer. Using an old bomb winch to control the rate at which the H-frames folded, we lowered the wing to the trailer. Now we were halfway done with this part of the ordeal.

We worked on the bomber every weekend that October and on into November. Many local aviation enthusiasts stopped by, and from them we learned a lot about the bomber, including the story of how the B-25 had ended up at Lunken nearly two years earlier.

As the story went, a man from Louisiana used the bomber to take a diverse collection of exotic animals from city to city—thus the name Wild Cargo. En route to Cincinnati for a show, the right engine had failed. The pilot reported to Lunken Tower that his landing gear was inoperative and declared an emergency. While the pilot circled Lunken to burn fuel, the copilot parachuted out, an event that was captured on camera by local news teams. Despite having an engine out, no landing gear, and an extreme crosswind, the pilot, by all accounts, made a perfect landing.

After the wings, we tackled the rear fuselage. Though it wasn’t that heavy, it was so long that we had more fuselage hanging off the trailer than riding on it. Making matters worse, we had the narrow end (tail gunner position) of the fuselage on the front of Dad’s two-wheel trailer. Though this arrangement allowed us to get the narrow tailcone up close to the Suburban’s rear doors to allow room for turning, it also meant the wide and heavy end of the fuselage was sticking far beyond the back of the trailer. On the highway, the load handled badly and was prone to sway left and right, limiting our speed to about 40 mph.


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