Vintage Warplanes Going Airborne Again

When Paul Allen started acquiring warplanes nearly a decade ago, he set out to have them painstakingly restored, but not just so they could go on display - he wanted them back in the air.

The Microsoft Corp. co-founder opened his collection to public view two years ago, and has since given many summertime visitors a chance to see the old planes take to the skies during "fly days," when the aircraft get exercise needed to keep their engines in good shape.

Allen and his staff at the Flying Heritage Collection are careful not to call it a museum.

"Instead of planes that are just statically displayed for people to see, they're restored to the most authentic artifact that they can be," said Michael Nank, spokesman for Allen and his investment company Vulcan Inc., which backs projects in science, the arts, movie production, and other ventures.

Allen, an aviation buff who built model airplanes as a boy, has acquired about three dozen vintage planes since 1998. Fifteen are on display in two hangars at the airport in rural Arlington about 40 miles north of Seattle.

Two of them, a Republic P-47D Thunderbolt and a Messerschmitt Bf 109E-3, were added to the collection in June. Another recent acquisition, a Hawker Hurricane Mk. XIIB, is to go on display later this summer.

The collection's oldest model is a 1918 Curtiss Wright JN-4D Jenny, which was used as a military training plane during World War I. The only thing on it that didn't win a 100 percent authenticity rating was its engine - the original had just one magneto, a device that feeds electricity to an engine's spark plugs. To meet modern safety requirements for airworthiness, the restored engine needed two magnetos.

Everything else, from the Irish linen that lines the wings and fuselage to the copper fire extinguisher behind the navigator's seat, has been restored with the same materials that were used when the original plane was built.

"If you'd gone to March Field in 1918 and looked at aircraft No. 3712, this is the airplane you would've been looking at. This is the way it was back then," said Norm Gordon, an Army veteran who's one of the collection's tour guides.

At the other end of the hangar, there's a Polikarpov U-2/PO-2, which was designed to be a training plane but was quickly put into use as a World War II bomber after the Germans destroyed much of the Russian Air Force. Until bomb racks were installed beneath the wings, Gordon said, the navigator seated behind the pilot would drop bombs from the plane by hand.

Allen's PO-2 was piloted by the first regiment of women ever to fly in tactical combat. They flew at night, in some cases more than 1,000 missions per crew by the war's end. Germans nicknamed them the "Night Witches."

"They'd fly up to the German line, shut the engine off, drop their bombs, start the engine, go back, land, rearm, refuel, go back and do it again ... up to 10 times a night," Gordon said.

One side of the plane bears the message: "Revenge for Ducia," hand-painted in Russian as a tribute to Soviet Union war heroes killed in combat. Gordon said some two dozen women who flew PO-2s earned the title Ducia, the Soviet Union's equivalent to the United States' Medal of Honor.

North Koreans later used PO-2s to bomb U.S. air bases in the Korean war. "We called them Bed Check Charlies," because like the Night Witches, they'd bomb at night, Gordon said.

The collection includes a 1941 Curtiss Wright P40-C Tomahawk flown by the famed "Flying Tigers" - a fighter unit of Americans that battled Japanese forces in China. It bears the signature painted shark teeth on the nose and is riddled with patched-over bullet holes.

The plane was shot down in Russia and sat on the tundra for 50 years until a British collector spotted it in a satellite photo. While other Tomahawks have been restored, Gordon said Allen's is among the oldest still flying.

Bill Fischer, executive director of the Experimental Aircraft Association's Warbirds of America, said Allen has one of the most extensive war plane collections on display at a single site. Some of the German models are particularly impressive, he said, because they're so rare.

"After World War II, a lot of those air frames were destroyed, just through the process of demilitarizing Germany," Fischer said in a phone interview from his office in Oshkosh, Wis.

Allen owns about 20 vintage planes that are in varying states of repair at restoration shops around the world. Eventually, Nank said, some of them may be added to Allen's Arlington collection if they can be restored to airworthiness.

Nank declined to disclose how much Allen has paid for his planes, but it's safe to say it's a lot more than it would have been if he'd simply restored them for static display.

Costs vary widely, depending on the age and condition of the plane, but the difference between restoring aircraft for flight vs. static display can be tens of thousands of dollars for small planes or hundreds of thousands for larger ones, said Kay Crites, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Commemorative Air Force in Midland, Tex.

More than 4,500 visitors have toured Allen's collection since it opened to the public in the spring of 2004. Allen is looking into allowing greater access to his collection by the end of next summer. To date, tours have been limited to Fridays and Saturdays. Admission is $20, with discounts for seniors and veterans.

Crites said a collection like Allen's reminds visitors "that freedom really isn't free. There was a price that was paid, and these planes played a very big part of that."

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On the Net:

Flying Heritage Collection: http://www.flyingheritage.com


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