There’s a terrific video that has been making the Internet rounds lately. It’s supposed to be a promotional piece hyping the sale of all the wonderful stuff well-known warbirder Connie Edwards has had secreted away on his ranch in Texas for over 50 years, but it’s actually a retelling of every guy’s fondest dreams.
I don’t know anyone who, on seeing the dusty forms of Messerschmitts (Hispanos, actually, but it’s a dream, so who’s quibbling?), rows of Merlin engines and a Spitfire languishing in a long-closed, remote hangar, doesn’t find their imagination catching fire and running away with them. That’s because so many of us in aviation are constantly hoping to stumble across the legendary airplane in a barn. We envision ourselves as the first to lay eyes on it in half a century, and the elderly owner is anxious to give it a good home. So, it’s our job to convince him that we’ll be the best thing that ever happened to his much-loved aerial artifact. More important, we do our level best to maintain a poker face that makes sure he can’t see that our brain is leaping around inside our skull; it’s so excited about our find.
In one way or another, we all have a little Indiana Jones in us.
While we’d all love to make one of these airplane-in-a-barn discoveries, it’s one of those kinds of things that seem to happen only to the other guy. Or, the airplane was found by a friend of a friend of a guy we met at a fly-in last year. Or, was it the year before? Few, if any of us, actually have firsthand knowledge of finding a rare/desirable/valuable airplane in an unexpected place. So, are these the equivalent of urban legends, like alligators in NYC sewers?
No, they’re not myths. How do I know? Because not only do I know several folks who discovered an iconic airplane and bought it, but it’s one of those rare I-was-there happenings I can report on firsthand. Although my own tale is a little dated, others I know to be true aren’t.
My own airplane-in-a-barn story didn’t involve a barn. And, it wasn’t just any airplane. In a chance, offhand comment made over the phone, a gentleman who ran a salvage yard told me, “Yeah, I have a Mustang scattered around the place.” Oh, really?! The location was only about 400 miles from where I lived at the time, and in as long as it took to throw some stuff in a bag and open the garage door, I was in my car.
At that time, aircraft salvage yards were generally acres of decaying, ex-military plywood crates stacked two high with paths wide enough for a forklift separating endless islands of them. And, that’s what I found on arrival: We wound our way through a maze made of thousands of crates, at least half of which had rotted and were dumping scores of aluminum aeronautical shapes into the weeds around them. Then, we turned a corner and there it was: a P-51D Mustang.
This wasn’t just any Mustang. The fuselage was up on a shipping jig and still bore Ohio ANG markings. There was no evidence of a hastily applied brush-painted N-number because the salvage yard operator had shipped it in rather than trying to fly it. It was 100% as-operated by the Guard. The stuff you almost never see on a Mustang today was still there: the fuselage tank behind the seat’s armor plate, which was complete with the little round cushion behind the pilot’s head. The rotting seat belt, the rocket intervalometer down by your knee and the cable running from the throttle up to where the gunsight should have been were all there. The wings, laying in the grass, still sported the zero-length rails for rockets, and the tailwheel was fixed in the down position as was common with Guard Mustangs.
The engine was missing because the salvor was getting ready to bid on some PT boat motors, so he removed this one and melted it down to see how much of what kinds of metal were in it. So, all of the cowling, formers and little firewall-forward gizmos were scattered around in the weeds. But they were all there. The big question was what kind of price the guy expected me to pay, and could I afford it? I was just barely out of college, and my new wife and I were living in an apartment, but I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to get a Mustang project. Ah, the dreams of youth! So, I asked the question: how much?
“Well, I bought that thing up in Ohio for $350, and then had to pay to have it trucked down here, so I have to get $700 for it!” He was almost apologetic, and I couldn’t believe it.
My brain exploded! Even at that time, that was an incredible price! So, I said “yes” as fast as my mouth could form the word, wrote him a check and rocketed home to scrounge up the money to cover the check before he tried to cash it.
So, I had my Mustang. And, a few months later, I managed to buy a military-overhauled engine (a -7) in a pressurized can for $1,000. So, I was on my way to owning the cheapest Mustang you can imagine. But, I never finished it. Why? Because I started flying P-51s and discovered two things: First, while they were good flying airplanes, they couldn’t live up to the incredible hype that surrounds them. Second, I quickly found that you don’t own an airplane like the Mustang. It owns you. It was the wrong time in life for me. So, I sold it and used the money to buy a share in one of the first two-place Pitts built. I haven’t regretted that decision for even an instant since.
That’s my airplane-in-a-barn story, but I have personal knowledge of lots of others. There’s the P-40 that was dug up out of a farmer’s field that was in amazing condition. The Cessna 140 covered in 30 years of dust in a barn that had only 500 hours on it and was pristine: It’s still flying with the original upholstery. The Cessna Airmaster I found in a barn. The Cub that had sunk into the dirt floor up to its axles in a long-closed hangar south of my old airport, but took very little to get flying. And there was the Waco UPF parked right behind it.
So, the airplane-in-a-barn thing isn’t a myth. It actually can happen to normal folks. The unfortunate thing about airplanes in barns is that there are only so many barns and so many lost airplanes to be discovered. The supply is limited. So, you had better start looking.