In the small town of Newbury, Ohio, lived a man named Walter Soplata. He owned a farm, and through his efforts, many rare aircraft were saved from the scrap yard. When my friend Clair Pazey told me that we had been invited to go see a gentleman’s aircraft collection, I remember thinking, “Wow, maybe he has something cool like a Stearman.” Little did I know that I would come face to face with a B-36 Peacemaker, Super Corsair, and so many other examples of high-performance and rare aircraft. I was also shown a building where there was one of the two P-82 Twin Mustangs he had, as well as a TBM Avenger.
In the time since that first visit, we’ve lost Walter and his wife. The aircraft are being sold to owners who plan to continue what Walter set out to do: Preserve these important parts of American history.
One such group is the Stoltzfus family of Preferred Airparts. They recently purchased the TBM Avenger that I saw in that building many years ago. For Mark Stoltzfus and his family it is more than just saving another vintage aircraft. For them, it is a piece of their family history.
The Avenger in Walter’s collection had belonged to Mark’s grandfather many years ago.
“My grandfather, Chris Stoltzfus, grew up in a Mennonite community where flying was not encouraged,” Mark said. “He went into the car business, running a body shop.” While doing that, Chris decided he wanted to pursue his love of flight. For Chris, it all started with an Aeronca C-3, followed by a few Cubs, then on to Wacos, Stearmans, and DC-3s.
He opened an air spray business called Chris D. Stoltzfus and Associates, which operated a fleet of aircraft including J-3s, Wacos, Stearmans, and Grumman TBM Avengers. TBM Bu 91637 served its naval career at various bases including Norfolk NAS, Keywest NAS, and ended it at the U.S. Navy Training Center at Bainbridge, Maryland. It was then sold to Chris Stoltzfus in a very stock military configuration.
According to the bill of sale, which Mark still has, the aircraft was purchased from the Navy on March 25, 1959. Chris owned the TBM for about 10 years and never converted it for the spray business. The aircraft was then purchased by Walter Soplata and transported in pieces to his collection. There the aircraft stayed for the next several decades.
“We knew the aircraft was there and that it was our family’s aircraft, but we wanted to remain respectful of Walter’s privacy,” Mark said.
Then came a special day about 10 years ago when Mark and his father were invited out to the Soplata farm.
“We spent the greater part of the day with Walter, and at one point he stopped and said, ‘Oh, I need to show you your grandfather’s plane,’” Mark said. “So he knew the family tie to the aircraft.” Mark heard about Walter’s death and was told the airplane was for sale.
They discussed the airplane and after some conversation with all parties, the Stoltzfus family agreed to purchase the aircraft.
“There are a few reasons we wanted the aircraft,” Mark said. “For us it was a part of our family history. So of course we wanted it. Also, it was an aircraft from Walter’s farm. And that, too, holds a special place in our hearts.” The aircraft will be restored to fly and will live on as yet another aircraft Walter saved.