The Ultimate Toy Box

Editor’s note: A version of this story first ran in the March 2018 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine. In light of Paul Allen’s recent death, we wanted to share this story about just one of the immeasurable contributions he made across so many different fields of endeavor.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, EAA 820282, spent his money on some really cool stuff.

He bought, restored, and reopened the classic Cinerama theater in downtown Seattle. He owned multiple sports franchises. He funded hundreds of millions of dollars of research in areas like artificial intelligence, bioscience, and how the human brain works. He supported wildlife conservation and major historical exploration, locating lost ships like the USS Indianapolis (CA-35). He has a fly named after him. The yacht he had built is more than 400 feet long and carries two helicopters and a submarine. He owned Renoir’s The Reader, a bunch of Jimi Hendrix’s guitars, Captain Kirk’s chair, and Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, not to mention a museum full of vintage computers.

In the aviation world, he was probably best known for funding SpaceShipOne, the private spacecraft designed and built by Burt Rutan, EAA Lifetime 26033, and Scaled Composites that won the $10 million Ansari XPRIZE. Coming soon, his company Stratolaunch will fly its rocket-carrying carrier aircraft, a six-engine behemoth with the largest wingspan of any airplane in history, including the Hughes H-4 Spruce Goose and the Antonov An-225.

But, in addition to shipwrecks and space travel, and science and movie props, he also liked airplanes. Amazing airplanes. And, luckily for us, they’ve been on display — on the ground and in the air — for more than a dozen years as part of his Flying Heritage Collection, which has now expanded to become the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum (FHCAM.)

Paul started collecting airplanes in 1998 and, over the years, amassed an enviable assortment of warbirds, restored with an almost incomprehensible devotion to accuracy and detail — many of them to flying condition. His collection was first opened to the public in 2004, housed in a couple of out-of-the way hangars at the Arlington Municipal Airport (KAWO) about 40 miles north of Seattle. The museum moved to its current location at the historic Paine Field (KPAE) in Everett, Washington, in 2008, and based on the burgeoning collection of tanks and artillery, updated its name in the spring of 2017.

“The main goals of this collection are to preserve things in complete originality,” said Adrian Hunt, EAA 878873, the museum’s executive director. “Every rivet, every wire is perfect, and also in operating condition. The reason we do that is so we can share them with the public, and the public can actually experience exactly what these machines would be like. To hear the thunderous roar of a plane fly over you, the clanking of a tank as it drives by you, and the boom as it fires.”

You’ll notice that Adrian talked about airplanes that roar as they fly, and tanks that clank as they drive and boom as they fire. That’s because FHCAM is no ordinary museum — it’s a working collection. When they’re not flying, clanking, or booming, the artifacts are nicely displayed and expertly interpreted through signage and multimedia. It feels like a museum — a very good museum. Then, one of the walls rolls up and visitors are reminded that they aren’t just wandering through another building full of display pieces, they’re actually in a hangar. And that hangar has some history of its own.

“This hangar was built in the late ’40s for Alaska Airlines, and we restored it to recognize its original architecture,” Adrian said. “We cleaned it, we added some skylights, but we deliberately kept the beautiful antique look of it, which is a wonderful setting for these period aircraft.”

The hangar was later used by the Air Force, which modified it to include a large weapons safe, something that FHCAM has put to good use. But, for an ever-growing collection like this one, one hangar just isn’t enough.

“We started in one hangar, and we quickly ran out of space so we built a second hangar, and we’ve run out of space again, so we’re about to build a third hangar, which will be even bigger, to house this wonderful collection,” Adrian said. The third hangar is scheduled to open on November 10, 2018.

The collection includes aircraft from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union. The emphasis is on the World War II era, but it’s also home to everything from a 1918 Curtiss Jenny to a 1989 MiG-29, and, yes, both of those are flyable.

There are warbird stalwarts like a P-51 Mustang named Upupa Epops, a combat veteran flown by ornithologist-turned-ace Bud Tordoff who flew with the 353rd Fighter Group of the 8th Air Force, and whose victories include a Messerschmitt 262. Bud named the airplane after an ungainly bird known in part for a peculiar and scatological defense mechanism. Other U.S. fighters include a Curtiss P-40C Tomahawk, a Goodyear FG-1D Corsair, a Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat, and a Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, all of which have been restored and most of which are flown regularly.

There’s a medium bomber in the mix, too, a North American B-25J Mitchell. It was built in late 1944 and served with the Royal Canadian Air Force before spending a few decades as a fire bomber. It was initially restored in the 1990s and now serves as a flying tribute.

“When we have a situation like that, where the plane itself did not have an individual history, we give [Paul] options, and he picks an identity,” Adrian said. “So that identity was picked to honor Arnold Spielberg, who was Steven Spielberg’s father, who served in China. He was a technical sergeant, so that plane is painted in colors of the squadron that Arnold Spielberg was in. Not only to honor Mr. Spielberg specifically, but to honor all World War II veterans from the Pacific theater.”

The U.S. aircraft in the FHCAM collection are rounded out with a couple of Vietnam War veterans: a Bell UH-1B Iroquois helicopter (better known as a Huey), and a Republic F-105G Thunderchief, which, unlike most of its hangar mates, is not flyable. The “Thud,” as the big fighter was known, is on loan from the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

The British are well-represented by a Hawker Hurricane Mk.XIIa, a Supermarine Spitfire Mk.Vc, and a de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito T.Mk.III, one of only a few flyable examples in the world as of this writing. This Mosquito was built near the end of WWII in 1945, and ended up being one of the last of the type in active service when it was retired from the Royal Air Force in 1963.

In addition to the MiG-29, the Soviet aircraft in the collection include a Polikarpov I-16 Type 24 Rata fighter, one of two flyable Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmoviks in the world, this one an M3 model, and a seemingly unassuming biplane, a Polikarpov Po-2 that played a powerful role against the Germans on their eastern front. The Po-2 was made famous by what the Germans called the Nachthexen, or “night witches.” Officially the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, they were a group of pilots who harassed German troops by taking off and flying over the enemy’s lines — dead-stick to avoid detection, no less — dropping small bombs, then gliding back to base to refuel, rearm, and do it all again, sometimes a dozen times per night. Many of the pilots in this regiment flew more than 800 missions during the war.

“The night witches biplane surprises people. We have all these sleek planes that everyone recognizes from movies and documentaries, and then we have this weird-looking biplane,” Adrian said. “It was flown by an all-female unit in the Soviet Union. … These heroic women were flying in subzero conditions and dropping bombs out of the side originally, and they suffered tremendous losses, and they were the most decorated in the Soviet air force. … The Soviets had female fighter pilots scattered throughout units, but this plane represents an all-female unit. All the mechanics, all the pilots were women working in horrendous conditions doing heroic things.”

And speaking of the Germans, FHCAM is home to a Fieseler Fi 156 C-2 Storch, known for its remarkable STOL capabilities, a Messerschmitt Bf 109 E-3 powered by an original Daimler-Benz DB.601 engine, a Messerschmitt Me 163B Komet rocket-powered interceptor that’s restored to static condition, and not one but two Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. Both of the latter are almost impossibly rare. One of them, an A-5 model powered by a BMW 801 engine, is the only original flyable example of the type. The other, a long-nosed D-13 model, known as a Dora, is fully restored but not expected to fly because it is the sole remaining D-13 anywhere in the world.

The Axis side of things is also represented by two Japanese fighters, a Mitsubishi A6M3-22 Reisen, or Zero, and a Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa, known to the Allies as the Oscar. The Zero flies regularly behind a Pratt & Whitney radial, while the Oscar, due to its extreme rarity, stays in the hangar, though it is in flyable condition.

Add more than two dozen tanks, armored vehicles, missiles and artillery pieces, a Higgins boat landing craft, not to mention the original White Knight mother ship of XPRIZE and SpaceShipOne fame, and you start to get a sense for what it is that makes this collection so remarkable. And these are just the things on display — there’s a rare Boeing B-17E in the works, and if you ask around, you’ll hear rumors of an Me 262 with original Jumo engines, a couple of Vought F-8 Crusaders, a MiG-21 or two, a Republic F-84G, and who knows what else that might be waiting in the wings.

So, who are the lucky pilots who get to fly these remarkable aircraft?

Well, first there’s Jason Muszala, a second-generation warbird restorer, maintainer, and pilot who grew up around the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California.

“My dad and my uncle, Bill and John Muszala, were part of the original Chino kids,” Jason said. “That’s where I grew up. Running around the Chino airport, watching my dad fix airplanes and test-fly airplanes. I was fortunate enough to take my first Mustang ride in Elmer Ward’s Man O’ War Mustang at the age of 4, on my dad’s lap, in the back seat. Between Chino and Lake Elsinore parachute center, I was hopping rides and helping fix airplanes since I was a young child.”

Jason owned his own business, restoring, maintaining, and flying warbirds, but jumped at the chance to hire on at FHCAM, working his way up to senior manager of restoration and maintenance. And when he’s not senior managing restoration and maintenance, he’s out flying airplanes.

“Currently I’m flying the P-51 Mustang,” he said. “I’m also flying the A6M3 Mitsubishi Zero fighter and the Fieseler Storch, a German observation plane, which is just as much fun as the fighters. Most recently I’ve been lucky enough to ride around as copilot in the de Havilland Mosquito.”

Like everyone at FHCAM, he has high praise for the boss.

“Paul Allen is doing an amazing amount to preserve history here,” Jason said. “He not only preserves history by restoring the airplanes, but he does it to such a meticulous level that, that’s absolutely what makes this collection world class, and better than any other in the world. We don’t just have restored warbirds. … We like to transcend that … not only to our restorations, but also to our maintenance program, and our flight operations department as well, and the pilots that we choose to fly the aircraft. Everything’s done to the absolute highest standard.”

Another pilot with the enviable job of flying some of FHCAM’s aircraft is Kevin Eldridge, another “Chino kid.”

“I started hanging out at Chino Planes of Fame when I was in high school just doing whatever needed to be done, sweeping, and eventually started working on airplanes, and got my mechanic’s license there, and then pilot’s license, and took my commercial in a T-6 and my instrument checkride in a B-25,” Kevin said. Not exactly your typical path, but his background prepared him well for flying some of FHCAM’s airplanes like the Corsair, Fw 190, and the Mosquito, but it’s another British type that he calls his favorite.

“My favorite British model in this collection would be the Hawker Hurricane, believe it or not,” he said. “It doesn’t get the respect I think that the Spitfire gets even though it bore the brunt of the Battle of Britain. … It’s not real fast like the Spitfire. It’s real maneuverable, but in a slower speed range, and it climbs real well. It’s got the typical British cockpit; it’s real tight, and a whole bunch of bells, and whistles, and knobs, and stuff. But it’s a great-handling airplane.”

Kevin holds a blanket authorization for “all makes and types” of high-performance piston-powered warbirds, and credits his maintenance background for making it easier for him to transition among so many different airplanes.

“I’ve been pretty fortunate as a pilot because I started out as a mechanic,” he said. “All the airplanes I’ve flown, I’ve worked on, maybe restored. … I think that helps me when I hop from airplane to airplane because I have a mechanical background, and I kind of know what’s going on.”

Bud Granley, EAA 63683, is another well-known name who spends some time flying for FHCAM. Born in Mayerthorpe, Alberta, in Canada, he flew for the Royal Canadian Air Force for years, then went to a career with United Airlines, flying air shows on weekends. Known for his T-6/Harvard aerobatics routine, he also flew shows in a Fouga Magister and, more recently, a Yak-55. He flies the latter in a dissimilar formation routine with his son Ross, who flies a four-seat Yak-18T. Two of his six kids, Ross and Chris, flew with the Snowbirds.

“I got involved [with] the … Flying Heritage Collection and Combat Armor Museum when they were based in Arlington, probably getting close to 20 years ago,” Bud said. “And somebody said, we need more local pilots. At that time, they had the same people we have now. Steve Hinton and fellows from Chino would come up, and sometimes they needed faster reaction time, so they looked around town, and they gave some of us a call.”

Bud flies several of the collection’s aircraft, including the P-47, P-51, Storch, Jenny, and Po-2. He doesn’t necessarily have a favorite, but he does say a lot of nice things about the Bf 109.

“The controls are really nice,” he said. “It’s got a nice gear that doesn’t tend to do anything unless you land crooked, so just don’t land crooked. It’s a very honest airplane. I like it. Makes a good noise. Tight little cockpit, but it’s just the right size for me. I love the airplane. It’s such a privilege to fly it.”

When asked what it’s like to fly so many of these remarkable airplanes, he responds with a laugh.

“Every day I do it, probably,” he said. “I’ll be the oldest guy to fly a Corsair, flying a Mustang. So what I do is what I do every day. Quite a privilege. I just don’t want to screw it up, you know?” Given his pedigree, the chances of Bud screwing it up seem small, indeed.

The museum’s new tagline is “Ready to fly. Ready to roll,” and during its many scheduled events throughout the year, visitors get the chance to see — and hear and feel and smell — the thunder of history in ways that a traditional museum simply can’t convey.

“It’s the best collection of its type in the world,” Adrian said. “Every rivet, every piece of these planes, these tanks is original, and they work. There is no collection like this in the world … and we want people to come and appreciate it.”

Adrian sounds proud of the museum, and if you’ve seen it, or when you do, you’ll understand exactly why.

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