Ghosts From The Sky


THE WARBIRD MOVEMENT KEEPS REINVENT- ing itself, shrugging off predictions of its demise for lack of spare parts by finding new caches of old parts or simply making new hardware from scratch by referring to microfilmed drawings. In the early days of Oshkosh there was a pretty clear understanding that the old hands—the actual veterans of these planes—were the masters and that youngsters in the cockpit were to be treated as such. Over the last two decades, however, baby boomers have swelled the ranks. But with the new pilots has come new understanding about the realities of flying high-performance military machines. Oshkosh participants must attend, and display proficiency during, formation flying clinics before they are allowed to play in the big show. Safety seminars unite the various warbird factions long enough for their sometimes strong-willed members to agree that nobody wants to become a smoking hole. And although instantaneous media coverage of warplane mishaps at airshows tends to magnify the problems of flying these powerful machines, as Jeff Ethell, a warbird pilot, author, and Oshkosh regular, points out, “Our accident rate is the same as general aviation and for the airlines.” Of the burgeoning postwar fighter category, Ethell says, “The accident rate in jets is flawless; they just don’t fiddle around with them.”

Oshkosh is about flight. Some assaults on the continued flying of warplanes come from federal regulators; others from well-intentioned individuals who see any losses of such aircraft as debits to the national heritage. Ethell rattles off a litany of statistics that shows the number of former warplanes on the U.S. civil aircraft registry is actually growing at the rate of about twenty per year. This aircraft alchemy occurs as newer planes become available and as the market gets increasingly lucrative, prompting rebuilders to take a second glance at derelict aircraft—and pieces of aircraft. Whole sections of P-51 Mustang fighters are being built from scratch, while sometimes the corroded wing of a fighter serves as a template to clone itself as patient metalworkers replicate each part and reinstall it, like an organism sloughing off old cells for identical new ones.

IT MAY ALL LOOK dangerous, but the accident rate at Oshkosh is the same as that for the airlines.

Most surprising of all are some of the warplanes long ago written off as wrecks. At Oshkosh in 1995 Dave Kensler of White Lake, Michigan, unveiled an immaculate Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighter, a barrel-chested holdover from the era when landing gear could be cranked up and down by hand using sprockets and motorcyclechains. And Kensler’s was one of two genuine Wildcats flying at Oshkosh that year; only a few years earlier the movement decried the possibility of ever seeing a genuine Grumman F4F-3 in the air again. But the pair at Oshkosh got there the hard way, after lying for more than forty years on the bottom of Lake Michigan. In recent years the U.S. Navy has embraced many of its fallen planes, submerged and all but forgotten for decades. Lawsuits and threatened lawsuits surround the raising of aircraft the Navy insists are still its property after all these years out of sight, but the two Wildcats in civilian hands were part of a salvage operation that had Navy blessings before Kensler ever bought one of them from the salvor. His plane had spent forty-eight years under 220 feet of freshwater. The depth had spared it the ravages of plant growth, and the Wildcat had been so thoroughly painted and prepared for the harshly corrosive environment of a life at sea that, amazingly, the protection held. The born-again fighter’s fuselage did not even require reskinning.


BUT THE LENGTHS TO WHICH WARPLANE devotees are going—coupled with record sales prices, including the $1.32 million fetched by a P-38 Lightning at auction a few years back—mean that this is no poor man’s hobby. If a P-51 fetched $5,000 in the 1950s, it was up to $25,000 by the late 1960s and pushes a million now. Engine overhauls cost more than a car. A Plexiglas canopy, blown fresh by one of several specialty shops, can run to several thousand dollars. Gone are the days of tinkering on a surplus fighter and hopping it on the weekends for a thrill. Perhaps that is just as well; the cost of these machines helps ensure them proper care.