Back Page: The Great Planes

<< Back to Robb Report, January 2004

Since Robb Report devoted its November 1989 cover story to collecting World War II aircraft, the popularity of the vintage planes has soared higher still. The 1990s marked the 50th anniversaries of major events of the war, prompting a wave of nostalgia and renewed appreciation for this tumultuous period of history. The decade also ushered in a wave of unprecedented wealth, endowing many admirers with the considerable funds needed to purchase, restore, and maintain these planes. In the ensuing years, the market has not cooled.

 

Consider, for example, the P-51 Mustang, the fast, maneuverable, piston-engine aircraft that graced the opening pages of the cover feature (“The Warbirds Are Back!”). The photo caption notes that the planes sold for $17,000 in 1969 but were changing hands for half a million 20 years later. Suffice it to say that things are different in 2004. “A P-51 in viable condition sells for well over a million, and the best, top-quality examples can sell for $1.2 million to $1.5 million,” says Bill Fischer, executive director of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Warbirds of America, a division of the EAA dedicated to the preservation of World War II aircraft.

Fischer says that roughly 250 P-51s are known to exist, and 157 of those are in flying condition. Other iconic planes, however, are far closer to extinction. The propeller-driven, piston-engine P-38 Lightning was prized for its ability to reach speeds in excess of 400 mph while flying as high as 35,000 feet. Of the more than 10,000 P-38s produced, Fischer reports, only 31 remain, and only six of them still fly.

Neils Agather, a member of the Commemorative Air Force, a non-profit organization in Midland, Texas, that restores and flies World War II planes, grows wistful recalling how his father went shopping for a B-29 in the 1970s. With a total production run of only 3,970, the B-29 was a relatively rare plane, but at the time, Agather’s father still enjoyed the luxury of rejecting a number of scruffier candidates in his search for one that met his standards. “Today,” says Agather, “collectors will go to Papua New Guinea, find a B-29 that crashed into a mountain, pick it up, and restore it.”

Agather is not exaggerating. In 1992, Kentuckian Roy Shoffner and his team traveled to Greenland to recover a P-38 that crashed there, along with seven other planes, 50 years earlier. The planes were buried under 268 feet of ice. Shoffner spent four months and $638,000 melting the ice and retrieving the plane, and then another 10 years and $3 million restoring the P-38 to its former glory. Rechristened Glacier Girl, it made its first flight in six decades in October 2002. Five other P-38s and two B-17s remain in Greenland, but Shoffner has no plans to go back for more. The market may be hot, but not hot enough to melt all of that ice again.

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