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

DESPITE HIS HUMBLE BEGINNINGS as the penniless son of Czech immigrants, my father, Walter Soplata, amassed an extraordinary collection of warbirds. He grew up fascinated by airplanes during the Great Depression, using whatever money he could scrape up to build balsa model aircraft. When World War II broke out, a stutter disqualified him from military service.

Dad took a job in a Cleveland, Ohio scrapyard, junking thousands of warplane engines that were suddenly declared surplus. In this job, he foresaw the near extinction of the nation’s historic aircraft. He felt he had to take action.

On land in Newbury, east of Cleveland, he began his airplane collection in 1947 with a late-1920s American Eagle biplane. A Vultee BT-15 trainer was next, and then in the early 1950s the big iron: a Vought/Goodyear FG-1D Corsair followed by another but much rarer F2G Corsair. The second Corsair, with an experimental brute-power R-4360 engine, had taken first place in the 1947 Cleveland National Air Races. My father went for the rare types: a prototype North American XP-82 Twin Mustang, then an F-82E Twin Mustang with Allison engines, an early Jet Age Chance-Vought F7U Cutlass, and a prototype of the Douglas AD Skyraider series.

In the early 1950s, my parents had four daughters and me, the only child who would pursue a career in aviation. I started in general aviation, then became an Air Force pilot and, later, an airline pilot. I cut my teeth on a twin-engine T-50 Cessna Bobcat—the type Sky King flew in the early years of the eponymous TV series—that I helped my father dismantle and haul by trailer in 1961. But of all the aircraft we dragged home, I recall most clearly a down-and-out B-25: my father’s first bomber.

One day in 1964, Dad and I were glued to our black-and-white TV set watching Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, in which Spencer Tracy played Jimmy Doolittle leading 16 B-25 crews from the deck of the USS Hornet to bomb Japan. Dad was like a kid excited by a commercial for a toy he just had to have. He wanted a B-25.

When you consider that our home was constructed primarily of lumber from warbird engine crates discarded at a smelter where he’d worked a few years earlier, it was amazing he could think such a thing. That job had provided a meager income, and then he turned to carpentry. The housing market proved sporadic, but Dad had nonetheless managed to start an airplane collection that was already impressive. My sisters and I had the perfect clubhouse: a Fairchild C-82 Boxcar fuselage like the one in the original Flight of the Phoenix movie.

Dad rarely paid more than a few hundred bucks for an airplane. In the early 1960s, a warbird’s price was usually determined by whatever its weight would bring at the scrapyard. Regardless of our dismal financial situation, when Dad pined for a particular treasure, it was likely he would get one. Sure enough, before long a visitor touring Dad’s collection had a tip.

“There’s a B-25 down at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati that made a gear-up belly landing a few years ago,” he said. “I heard they’re going to cut it up and scrap it soon.”

Scrapped? To Dad, the thought was unbearable. He tracked down the owner who was going to scrap the B-25 and convinced the man to sell it to him for $500.

Now Dad faced the problem of getting the airplane home without destroying it. Since none of the aircraft Dad acquired was flyable, each one had to be hauled on a highway, so the size of each aircraft was a major consideration. Most of the airplanes he hauled were fighters or trainers—relatively small. Even though the B-25 was much smaller than, say, a B-17, it was still a big airplane.

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.

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.

On another trip, we put both of the airplane’s twin-row R-2600 radial engines on the trailer together. Though the load was well balanced, the engines were very heavy. It was bad enough we didn’t have a truck, but even worse, Dad’s Suburban wasn’t too powerful. It sported a straight-six engine with a three-speed transmission that shifted on the steering column; today, people wouldn’t use a vehicle like that to pull a jet ski. Here we were dragging a World War II bomber 200 miles.

The last 20 miles of our journey consisted of some big hills in Ohio’s Chagrin Valley, and Dad was nervous, with good reason. While pulling the pair of B-25 engines up one of the hills, he had trouble down-shifting into first gear. Halfway up the hill we almost stalled out. With the Suburban built before the age of power brakes and no brakes on the trailer, I later had nightmares about those heavy bomber engines taking us for a rip-roaring backward ride down that long steep hill.

The center section of the wing with both engine nacelles, both main landing gear, and the bomb bay proved to be the heaviest and most unstable load. Still, it represented the last load. Approaching the dreaded hill, Dad shifted into first gear while we were still on flat pavement. To our relief, the Suburban’s little six was up to the task, though just barely.

Well past midnight when we got home, Dad cruised from our dirt driveway out into the field next to it. Under the light of the stars, he parked the trailer and center wing behind the cockpit section, to some extent reuniting the shadowy silhouettes. And with that, a stray-dog B-25, once hours away from the scrapman’s torch, had found a home.

We hauled airplanes through the early 1970s. We brought home a second, nearly airworthy B-25 in 1966. Also that year, we got a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fuselage, a North American F-86 Sabre fuselage, and a complete Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, an early pre-ejection-seat model. Oddest of those we hauled that year, a wrecked B-57 Canberra bomber was dreadfully difficult to dismantle in the bitter cold winter.

In my father, Mom saw a man driven by a strong work ethic both in his carpenter job and in his passion for airplanes. The only time she put up a fight was over the purchase of yet another FG-1D Corsair in 1960, which was likely the best deal he ever made. He paid $200 for an aircraft in excellent shape. Except for tattered fabric, it was virtually airworthy. Mom had a fit because he hadn’t told her in advance. Her first clue was seeing one of the blue outboard wings coming down the dirt road on the trailer behind our clunker Chevy.

Mom has often told me that when women at church ask her why she puts up with her husband’s collection, her standard reply is “At least I always know where my husband is.”

The year 1966 appeared to be the time when military administrators suddenly discovered they no longer had World War II aircraft for the air museums they were building. Navy and Marine Corps representatives came by, all but begging Dad for his FG-1D Corsair.

Dad was dismayed by the military’s lack of foresight, and their stricter regulations. By 1966, surplus military aircraft could not be released to civilians unless they had been demilitarized, which essentially meant cut up into small pieces. Had such a policy existed in the 1940s and 50s, it’s likely that Corsairs, Hellcats, and Thunderbolts could have ended up like the Douglas TBD Devastator. Not a single Devastator remains. Thus, despite the wrecked condition of the B-57, and the even worse condition of a Convair B-36 bomber Dad got after the Air Force destroyed, or demilitarized it, he acquired these and other shattered airplanes, to some degree, as monuments to the government’s wholesale destruction of its obsolete military aircraft. Dad continues to hang on to the wreckage of two U.S. Navy Blue Angel jets, an F-11 Tiger and F-4 Phantom II, that crashed during airshows.

His engine collection numbers 50 or so. He once had the first engine ever made by the Allison Engine Company, which he happened to get when a scrap dealer friend didn’t have the heart to scrap the rare engine—he knew Dad would give it a home. It’s now on display at the New England Air Museum at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut.

Up through 1972, Dad and I collected aircraft purchased from private individuals, aviation schools, and other non-military sources—a Douglas B-26, two Grumman TBM Avengers, a North American SNJ Texan, a Curtiss O-52 Owl.

The warbird restoration movement picked up steam about then, with others snapping up the last of the cheap and derelict World War II aircraft. Prices skyrocketed, knocking Dad out of the market. Also that year, I enlisted in the Air Force as an electronics technician and a few years later attended Air Force ROTC to become an officer and a pilot, breaking up our father-and-son airplane-hauling team.

On Sunday afternoons in the 1960s and 70s, it was common to have 30 or so visitors touring the Soplata collection. Parents and kids could climb into the cockpits of a BT-13, BT-15, T-50, T-28, SNJ Texan, FG-1D Corsair, F2G Corsair, TBM Avenger, AD Skyraider, F-82E Twin Mustang, P-80 Shooting Star, F-84F Thunderstreak, F-86L Sabre, F7U Cutlass, B-25J, Douglas B-26, and a P2V Neptune. But for the past 20 years, Dad’s collection has been closed to visitors. Now 83 and a regular on the flea market circuit, Dad has expanded the scope of his collecting to include anything and everything. To support his perpetual appetite for collecting, many of his aircraft have been sold. The first to go, in 1986, was Wild Cargo, which was restored for flight in 2005. It is the first of Dad’s refugees to fly again.

The P-80 is owned by the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida. The F-82E Twin Mustang is being restored to airworthiness in Minnesota. The F2G Corsair belongs to Cleveland’s Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum and is partially restored for static display while awaiting funds for completion. The status of a basket-case P-51 sold in the 1980s remains undetermined.

As Dad’s collecting eventually dominated every facet of family life, my sisters and I simply learned to fend for ourselves, finding after-school jobs to pay for things we needed. That said, my sisters and I all agree we are stronger adults, perhaps because of our childhood experience. To this day, we all remain on good terms, with “tolerance” being a word we all know well. There hasn’t been a family gathering at my parents’ home in over 30 years. There simply isn’t room.

Over the years, the family's property in Newbury, Ohio, became the stuff of legends. Jim Harley

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