For Greg Herrick, collecting airplanes seems to be more of an addiction, less of a hobby. His eclectic assortment of more than 40 aircraft spans eight decades, with a focus on the period between World War I and World War II known as the Golden Age. As the owner of such an extraordinary collection, which includes one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable antique planes, Greg tackles a host of challenges—from replacing obscure parts to being the center of attention wherever he lands. The result is a preservation of history—it isn't just about the aircraft, but also the stories behind them.
Greg caught the "vintage bug" as a child who attended antique fly-ins with his father in Ottumwa, Iowa. For his high school graduation gift, Greg received flying lessons—he earned his pilot's license within two months. But his fever skyrocketed in 1992 when he took a ride in a friend's Fairchild PT-19. The following year, Greg purchased a PT-26. One PT-19 and PT-23 later, he had a full set of Fairchild trainers. That was just the beginning. Greg wanted to give the Golden Age the recognition it deserved: "It was a fabulous time with literally hundreds of models being built. Unfortunately, you see very few of them."
His planes are housed at the Golden Wings Museum (www.golden wingsmuseum.com) at Anoka County-Blaine Airport in Minneapolis. On the roster is a 1937 Fleetwings Seabird, a stainless-steel plane—one of five ever made—that Howard Hughes flew for three months. His 1927 Fairchild FC-2-WS (which he dubbed "the predecessor to the space shuttle") was the first plane that NACA (now NASA) owned. And if that's not impressive enough, there's the 1927 Ford Tri-Motor, the world's oldest flying airliner. Its controls have been handled by the likes of Charles Lindbergh (who piloted it in 1927 from Washington, D.C., to Mexico City, where he flew for the first time with his wife-to-be, Anne Morrow), Amelia Earhart, Bernt Balchen (the first to fly over the South Pole), Floyd Bennett (the first to fly over the North Pole) and the first air crew to fly the Atlantic from east to west.
Greg isn't concerned about how many planes he owns, he cares more about their history and the passion they instill. "To really understand an aircraft," Greg feels, "you need to know its story." When searching for appropriate planes, he devotes much of his time to researching accounts of the aircraft's struggles and achievements. The reward of restoration (which he often prefers to call "resurrection") is using his aircraft to narrate and preserve tales of the Golden Age.
Occasionally, Greg will go so far as to reenact a story. He used his 1927 Avro Avian, piloted by Carlene Mendieta, to recreate Amelia Earhart's 1928 solo flight across the United States. They not only duplicated her flight route, but by following details from her diary and newspaper archives, they also went to the same restaurants, and even ate the same food.
In 2003, Greg staged a recreation of the National Air Tour. Originally organized by the Ford Motor Company during the Golden Age, the annual tours introduced the public to the concept of air travel. In the reenactment, more than 30 vintage planes followed the route planned for the 1932 tour, which never happened because of the Great Depression. For Greg, scouring old newspaper archives for research was half the fun. Future plans include a recreation of Charles Lindbergh's flight to Mexico City in the Ford Tri-Motor, to be flown by Charles' grandson, Eric.
Greg's other passion is attending fly-ins. He likens landing at a grass strip for breakfast in a Tri-Motor to Lindbergh landing at Le Bourget, but with pancakes instead of croissants. "People go nuts," explains Greg, and while being the center of attention is enjoyable, there's a certain amount of responsibility involved. He has had to cut his engine immediately after landing (and before taxiing), because of safety concerns for fanatics who sprint mindlessly toward the aircraft. Their marvel is so intense that "you'd think martians had just landed." This extraterrestrial pilot keeps coming back for more. He hosts www.flyins.com, a searchable listing of fly-ins and other aviation events.
Greg Herrick's Golden Age aircraft are housed at the Golden Wings Museum in Minneapolis. Included in the collection are a 1928 Stinson Detroiter, the world's first diesel-powered aircraft, and a 1927 Avro Avian, which was Australia's oldest registered flying aircraft.
Plenty of challenges come with owning a fleet of such rare, irreplaceable aircraft. Extra caution must be taken in adverse weather conditions, as was evident last summer during preparations to send five Tri-Motors to Oshkosh. While practicing landings on a grass strip in the Bushmaster (one of two ever built, and the only one remaining) and using the Fairchild PT as a photo platform, a sudden and severe storm approached. They pulled the Fairchild PT into a hangar but there was no time to move or even tie down the Bushmaster. As Greg sat anxiously in the Fairchild, the roof of a nearby hangar zoomed past, and he feared the Bushmaster would be next. Instead, through the howling wind, he heard the Bushmaster start up. Pilot Jim Obowa pointed the aircraft into the wind, gunned the engines and forced it to stay on the ground by lifting the tail up and pushing the nose over. Literally flying the plane while it was on the ground, Jim braved 50 to 60 mph winds. Had he not, this one-of-a-kind aircraft would have flipped over, putting an end to any future stories.
To an outsider, Greg might seem like an impulsive aircraft shopper. However, he's quite particular when scouting for his next addition. And once he finds what he wants, he doesn't give up. This requires patience, perseverance and, most often, persuasiveness. Convincing owners to part with their planes is "like trying to buy their children." They must be assured that it's going to a good home. For many old- timers, vintage airplanes represent who they are, and separation is anything but an easy process. Trust must be earned and relationships must be developed. It took three years of stopping for coffee with vintage-aircraft owner Gene Frank in Idaho before Greg was allowed to even view Gene's Ford Tri-Motor.
In so far as Greg knows what he wants, he's not shy about buying planes sight unseen. Thus it was no deterrent that one object of his desire, a Sikorsky S-39, was in "cold storage" at the bottom of a remote lake in Alaska when he purchased it. Not only could Greg not view the aircraft, but the seller had never seen it either. In fact no one had seen it since one fateful afternoon in 1958 when the landing gear failed to fully retract and the plane flipped as it touched the water. To find the lost plane, Greg located the pilot, Vic Lenhart, by dialing everyone listed under that name. It took a lot of convincing to get Vic ("Sonny, what part of 'no' don't you understand?") to return to the accident site.
A fast-moving storm stranded the Bushmaster 2000, which had to be flown on the ground to battle ferocious winds.
After three trips, the Sikorsky was located, but two attempts to pull it from the lake failed. Not surprising considering that the aircraft sits below 213 feet of water and is partially buried in glacial silt, which Greg likens to "a combination of Elmer's Glue and peanut butter." Other complications included the remote location—there are neither roads nor electricity—and the Lake Clark National Preserve, which must approve any work in the area. Even the government has given up on dislodging one of its planes, which is similarly buried (albeit, just 30-feet deep) in the Seattle Harbor. Still, Greg perseveres. Recognizing that the money poured into the project is "insanity," he jokes, "we will get this thing out of here if we have to drain the lake!"
In another blind purchase, Greg acquired a 1928 Stinson Detroiter, the world's first diesel-powered aircraft. He placed his order over the phone immediately after seeing an ad from the Henry Ford Museum. Although they advised him to see it first, Greg saw no need to delay: "I knew I wanted it." His first glimpse of the historic aircraft wasn't until it was delivered to his door, and as it turns out, the aircraft was "an artifact frozen in time." Its original patina remained and blades of grass were stuck in the tires from landing at the Henry Ford Airport. To protect this authentic feel, plans to restore the Stinson are on hold, perhaps indefinitely.
When restoring vintage aircraft, Greg must always balance authenticity against practicality. Although hardcore historians insist that restorations must be one hundred percent accurate, sometimes exactness limits what a plane can do. For aircraft that Greg plans to frequently fly to air shows, he wants a design that will last. In the Golden Age, mechanics would weave cables together and then solder them, but "there's a reason they don't do that anymore" and Greg prefers to use today's crimping system. He may also choose to include a radio or electric system in an aircraft; this integration of modern technology enables him to share the plane with more people.
A further challenge is locating rare parts. If they can't be found, they need to be made. But while manufacturing old parts can prove difficult, "it's not voodoo." Because Golden Age aircraft are made primarily of tube and fabric, they aren't as complex as WWII planes and are therefore easier to maintain. Perhaps the bigger challenge is recreating old technologies that no longer exist. To form the leading edge of the Ford Tri-Motor's wings, Greg needed to bend corrugated metal against the direction of the corrugation, while gradually tapering the material toward the wingtip—not an easy task.
Greg's involvement with aviation spans beyond vintage aircraft. He serves on the board of directors of the Lindbergh Foundation (www.lindberghfoundation.org), which focuses on projects that combine nature and technology to improve living standards, and he's on the Steering Committee for the Young Eagles. His company, Historic Aviation (www.historicaviation.com), sells everything from aviation models to calendars.
What's left for someone who has so many cool airplanes from the Golden Age? Topping Greg's wish list is a Curtiss Condor. So far he has located three of these large (90-foot wingspan) biplanes. The U.S. Navy owns one and another is crashed in a jungle in El Salvador. The third (consisting of random parts remaining from a crash) is in a storage facility in Illinois. But none of this deters Greg: "The testosterone and loud noises of warbirds are fine to a point, but the world needs one Curtiss Condor much more than it needs another P-51."