When Republic Aviation Folded

A historian rescued a lone document from the company’s files.

Military contract
In 1940, $16 million and change could buy 225 Republic P-47s. Cradle of Aviation Museum

As the curator of the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island, New York, my job is to preserve and interpret the aerospace heritage of Long Island. A major player historically in the aviation industry here was Republic Aviation, in Farmingdale. In 1987 the company collapsed. It was heartbreaking to watch.

That fall, a Republic manager called to tell me the Fairchild Corporation, Republic’s parent company, was liquidating Republic and about to dispose of the corporate archives. He could get me in to have one last look, but I could take nothing out.

On the drive over, I fumed that so important an archive should be destroyed, with no effort to have another institution save it. Upon arriving at the company’s decaying headquarters, I was taken to a room filled with metal shelving, upon which lay the complete corporate history of the Republic Aviation Corporation, going back to its 1931 founding as the Seversky Aircraft Company. Each shelf, labeled with an aircraft type, was crammed with manuals, reports, blueprints, and memos; the archive covered every type of aircraft the company had produced, including projects and concepts that never reached production. Within each section, the material was organized by date. Whoever had set up this archive clearly cared about making the corporate history easily accessible.

Fairchild had decided that the archive contained classified material, and thus ordered it all destroyed: It was easier to throw out everything. While it was possible that some information on then-recent programs like the A-10 might be classified, surely there was nothing classified on aircraft that were no longer flying, like the P-35, P-47, and F-105. But Republic was out of time and manpower. An armed guard paced the empty aisles while two workers heaved paper into a dumpster.

I decided I had to at least try to save something—anything. Surely I could slip one document under my coat and leave without the guard noticing; he had little interest in the proceedings.

As a historian, I pondered the morality and legality of taking even one item. I reasoned I would simply be moving a document from one archive to another.

But what to take? Something about the classic P-35, the historic P-47 or F-84? Perhaps the Mach-3 XF-103, or the Vietnam stalwart F-105? I decided the P-47 Thunderbolt, with its production run of more than 15,500, was probably Republic’s most historically important aircraft. I went to the top left corner of the P-47 section and grabbed an inch-thick document. A glance at the cover, and, when the guard wasn’t looking, under my coat it went. I put my head down, walked out to my car, shoved the document under my seat (lest the gate guard peek in), and drove off.

In the security of my office, I examined my filched prize. It was the first production contract awarded for the P-47, the airplane that to a great extent helped win the air war over Europe in World War II. With its yellowing, typed 100-plus pages and dog-eared cover—War Department Contract #15850, dated September 13, 1940—it was surely the only remaining original contract.

The contract was awarded eight months before the first P-47 flew. The Air Corps agreed to buy 225 P-47Bs from Republic at a cost of $16,275,657.50. The contract contains detailed notations on requirements, delivery, and cost, with many addenda so the evolution of the design could clearly be traced. On the cover was a bold signature: “H.H. Arnold”—General Henry “Hap” Arnold, Chief of the Air Corps.

Today the contracts are in our museum archive, available to researchers, scholars, and enthusiasts. We will never know what other historic documents went into the dumpster. I still wonder if I chose wisely.

The longtime curator of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, New York, Joshua Stoff has written 20 books on aerospace history.

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