Hidden Warbirds: Rare Warbirds in Unusual Places

By: Nicholas A. Veronico
Lucky Finds

Some people don’t believe in luck, while others think that luck is what you make of it. Those who believe they can influence their luck know that this superpower is made up of five components: Many believe it’s all in who you know. Then there’s being in the right place at the right time, being willing to take a chance, and being ready, and knowing when, to act.

And then there’s the ability to read people, especially the storytellers.


One needs to be able to separate fact from fiction and do so quickly. The inability to separate fact from fiction can, at the very least, be a big waste of time, and on the other end can endanger one’s wallet or at the extreme one’s life and limb.

Once a hidden warbird story is told, it certainly bears repeating. The question is, how far from the original source are you? Stories have a way of changing with each retelling. One has to wonder if the P-38 in the barn story is not actually two BT-13s sitting side-by-side?

That P-38 in the barn story many heard was actually true, except it was two P-38s, not one! P-38L 44-26969 and 44-27083 had been operated by Mark Hurd Aerial Surveys in Santa Barbara, California. The company put all four of its P-38s up for sale in 1967, and electrical engineer Bruce Pruitt bought two of them. He dismantled the twin engine fighters and hauled them to his parents’ barn outside of Sacramento, California, for storage. Rumors of the P-38 in a barn gained traction as the warbird movement picked up momentum in the mid-1980s.

After the fiftieth anniversary of the P-38s first flight in 1989, there was a huge push to track down these airplanes. It was Pruitt’s intention to rebuild them as a retirement project and he had spent the better part of twenty years gathering as many P-38 spare parts as possible. Warbird hunters hounded him until he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse—both aircraft would be rebuilt to flying condition, and the restorers would keep one in exchange for their work and investment in making the planes fly. Unfortunately, Pruitt’s P-38 was destroyed in a crash on June 6, 1997, near Tillamook, Oregon. Although he was devastated after the loss of the P-38 that had been such a big part of his life, Pruitt acquired a Bell P-63 project to occupy his interest in World War II aircraft restoration.

For every story that’s told, some people, probably not intentionally, spread misinformation. For example, there is a B-17F near Leech Lake in Northern California that yielded a number of rare parts used to restore other Flying Fortresses. Even the guns were located, but they were buried on the site. Many people told stories of how “hippies” had gone into the site in the 1960s and scrapped out the bomber for its metal content. Yes, people did go into the foothills and mountains to recover metal from crash sites, but after having hiked to the Leech Lake B-17F, there’s no way anyone made that trek and certainly not to haul in all of the equipment needed to reduce a bomber tomolten metal. Thus not every story about a crashed or abandoned warbird is factual.

There’s always been the story of the biplane or the Cub in a barn, but a hidden warbird like a P-51D Mustang in a guy’s garage? Not likely . . . Or the story of a B-17 four-engine bomber in a forest? Possible, but highly unlikely as well. How about an ex U.S. Navy patrol bomber, a type that saw combat in World War II, sitting on a grass strip sunk up to its axels in mud? All you have to do is fl y it out before the land used as a runway becomes houses. Sounds like tall tales, each and every one of them.

Mustang in a Garage: P-51D (F-6D) Lil’ Margaret

“Mustang Mike” Coutches of American Aircraft Sales in Hayward, California, was on the hunt for P-51H parts in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Coutches was selling licensed, ready-to-fly P-51Ds for $3,995 at the time, but his interest was in the P-51H. The 194th Fighter Squadron of the California Air National Guard operated P-51Ds and -51Hs from the Hayward Airport, and it was a sad day when the unit moved to Fresno, California, and transitioned to the F-86A. About a hundred miles northeast of Hayward, the U.S. Air Force depot at Mc-Clellan Air Force Base, near Sacramento, California, had seen hundreds of Mustangs pass through its overhaul lines and dozens were sold surplus from here as well. In addition, thousands of pounds of Mustang parts were auctioned off as they were no longer needed in an all-jet air force.

Here it is, every warbird enthusiast's dream: A P-51 Mustang in a garage. Butch Schroeder had heard stories of the garage Mustang, but never could confirm its existence. Finally tracking down the story, he found this photoreconnaissance version of the P-51D in Missouri. Schroeder approached the owner, who had worked on the Mustang for years. It was the right time and a deal was struck. Image credit: Butch Schroeder. Caption credit: Hidden Warbirds by Nicholas A. Veronico.

Here it is, every warbird enthusiast’s dream: A P-51 Mustang in a garage. Butch Schroeder had heard stories of the garage Mustang, but never could confirm its existence. Finally tracking down the story, he found this photoreconnaissance version of the P-51D in Missouri. Schroeder approached the owner, who had worked on the Mustang for years. It was the right time and a deal was struck. Image credit: Butch Schroeder. Caption credit: Hidden Warbirds by Nicholas A. Veronico.


In the late 1940s, someone had purchased a Mustang at a surplus sale (possibly at McClellan), and then attempted to sell it to Israel or one of the Latin American countries looking for aircraft in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The plane was reportedly disassembled, crated, sitting on the dock, about to be loaded on a ship, when U.S. Customs stepped in and seized the Mustang. The aircraft did not leave the country and was later sold at auction and then purchased by a scrap dealer.

Coutches was going into one particular Sacrameto-area salvage yard that was rich in H model Mustang parts—parts that only Mustang Mike needed and wanted. Every time he would go in, the scrap dealer would bug him to buy a disassembled D model Mustang sitting in a corner of the yard, but they could never reach an agreement as Mustang Mike didn’t want a disassembled P-51D when he could buy flying aircraft for not much more of a premium.

Coutches returned once again, and the scrapman finally told him if he wanted any more H model parts, he was going to have to buy the disassembled P-51D Mustang. The aircraft was ready for transport, so Mustang Mike hauled it home and put it in his backyard. The story has it that the Coutches’s kids played on it for years.

In 1961, William “Bill” Myers of St. Charles, Missouri, bought the disassembled P-51D from Coutches. Hauled east, the fighter plane project took over Myers’s house, basement, and garage. And slowly word got around the neighborhood that there was a plane in a garage. The rumor gained legs as people would see it when the door was up, and by the mid-1970s as the warbird movement picked up steam, the rumor had grown and was beginning to spread to pilots in neighboring states.

Mustang owner and restorer John Dilley from the Fort Wayne Air Service, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Butch Schroeder of Danville, Illinois—who at the time owned former El Salvadorean Air Force Cavalier conversion P-51D FAS 409, ex 45-11559, North American Maid—had heard the rumor, too. “I kind of beat Dilley to it,” said Schroeder. “I had the opportunity to go to St. Louis on business and I was always looking in the phone book trying to find who I thought was the owner at the time, but I always ended up empty handed.

“A short time later, a friend of mine who owned a Hawker Sea Fury asked me to take North American Maid to an airshow in St. Charles, Missouri. I asked if the airshow was going to pay for fuel and said I wasn’t interested in going without it. After turning him down, we got to talking about this mystery Mustang, which was thought to be in the same area. My friend said the hosts of the airshow knew where the Mustang was, and I’m thinking ‘Yeah, right.’ I told my friend that if the show hosts would take me to see the plane, then I’d fly down.

“I went to the airshow and one evening they took me to see the Mustang, and on the way over they said they were not interested in buying it. So I tried and made a deal to buy the plane.” Butch Schroeder had found the elusive P-51D Mustang in a garage, and bought it!

Restoring an F-6D Mustang

Upon closer inspection, Schroeder determined that the Mustang was a rare photoreconnaissance version of the P-51D known as an F-6D, and later an RF-51D, serial number 44-84786. “When we researched the history of the airplane, we knew exactly what we were looking at. It still had the original data plate showing it was designated an F-6D. It was kind of ironic; most of your airplanes have a metal data tag with the information stamped in it. This was all done on phenolic and it was handwritten using something like a paintbrush,” Schroeder said.

The F-6D was built at North American Aviation’s Dallas, Texas, factory and delivered on June 8, 1945, after the war in Europe had ended, but still three months before the Japanese surrendered. The photoreconn fighter was assigned to U.S. Army Air Force bases at Andrews, Washington, D.C.; Stuttgart, Arkansas; Brooks Field, Texas; Topeka, Kansas; Hobbs Field, New Mexico; Spokane, Washington; Kelly Field, Texas; Pope Field, North Carolina; and finally to McClellan Air Force Base, part of the Air Material Command, for storage in June 1949. The F-6D was stricken from the air force’s inventory on November 25, 1949.

As the now proud-owner of a Mustang project, Schroeder had to get the fighter from the St. Louis area home to Danville, Illinois, a distance of 215 miles. First he had to call his friends with pickup trucks, then find enough additional friends to help load the project. “Bill Myers’s wife was real glad to see the Mustang go because, in essence, I had to clean their garage to get the plane out,” Schroeder said. “I think it took us six pickup trucks and five trailers and we went down early one morning, loaded up, and we and had it back home that afternoon.” Myers had about 95 percent of the airplane, and what he didn’t have Schroder would use his extensive contacts in the warbird community to locate.

New owner Butch Schroeder takes a seat in the Mustang's cockpit after loading it on a trailer for the trip to Illinois. Image credit: Butch Schroeder. Caption credit: Hidden Warbirds by Nicholas A. Veronico.

New owner Butch Schroeder takes a seat in the Mustang’s cockpit after loading it on a trailer for the trip to Illinois. Image credit: Butch Schroeder. Caption credit: Hidden Warbirds by Nicholas A. Veronico.


Once home, the P-51D was stored in Schroeder’s hangar while he worked with Mike VadeBonCoeur to return his AT-6 to full, stock military configuration. “I had become friends with Mike when he was still in high school,” Schroeder said. “He came and started just helping me and I would pay him flying time in exchange so he could work on getting his pilot’s license. So in essence, to start out with, he worked for me, and then years later, he went off on his own and started Midwest Aero.” VadeBonCoeur had worked with Schroeder on his warbirds before leaving to attend Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, Oklahoma. When he returned, VadeBonCoeur and Schroeder finished the restoration of U.S. Air Force T-6G serial number 49-3144 in 1990. The aircraft was awarded the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Warbird Reserve Grand Champion Award, and VadeBonCoeur was recognized with the Golden Wrench Award for his work. Today, VadeBonCoeur’s Midwest Aero has been recognized for its highly detailed, award-winning P-51D Mustang restorations, such as Cripes A’ Mighty, Daddy’s Girl, Happy Jack’s Go Buggy, Live Bait, and Red Dog.

“I was doing most of that early work on the T-6 and the Mustang part time, as I had a really nice job at the University of Illinois,” said VadeBonCoeur. “I left the University of Illinois to come work for Butch full time on the T-6. I kind of always had it in the back of my mind that if I was going to leave a good, solid university position that my hope and goal was to be able to eventually start my own business.”

Once the T-6G was out of the hangar, Schroeder and VadeBonCoeur began the restoration of the photoreconnaissance Mustang full time. The project would take three more years of hard work. “This airplane had never been a surveying airplane or a warbird. When we got it, it still had the markings on the wings and was pretty much the way it had come out of the factory. So early on, it was decided that the goal was to make it look just like the day that it rolled out of the factory and keep it stock—single seat, guns, cameras, the whole deal,” Schroeder said. “For some reason, guns had never been put in that airplane even though a lot of the equipment was in there. We had to go out and I made about three different trips to California scrounging around. Back then, the rare, original fittings were pretty easy to find because nobody wanted them. Now, everybody wants those detail parts, so they’re much harder to find. There’s an armor plate that sits right behind the propeller to protect the fuel tank that’s back there. I found it in California at a Mustang shop and they were using it just to prop the door open. The armor plating that goes behind the seat . . . somebody was using it as a barbecue grill.

“I had a list of everything that I was looking for, and I left copies with people, and again, at the time, this was stuff that nobody wanted. I can’t remember if it was Strega or Stiletto, but one of the racing Mustangs had been an F-6D and some original, cool stuff came out of one of them. Later I was out in Fort Collins, Colorado, and I went and talked to Darrel Skurich [known for rebuilding the XP-51 on display at the Experimental Aircraft Association Museum]. He had the camera mount I needed for my aircraft. Dennis Schoenfelder had the camera ports, but they needed some repair work, which was done by John Neel of Low Pass Inc. in Griffin, Georgia. I also had the good fortune to become friends with Brian O’Farrell. He’s the guy that bought all the Dominican Mustangs and their spares, and he had a warehouse full of brand-new parts. I had the chance to pick through O’Farrell’s inventory of new parts for my airplane.”

Mike VadeBonCoeur said, “We did everything except the engine, propeller, the radiator, and instruments. I probably built most of the systems. I did all of the hydraulic systems, all the electrical wiring, most of all of the installation of the interior components, and basically all of the assembly work. Butch had already restored certain components and had those sitting aside and ready to go in.”

Try as he might, Schroeder could never locate any factory blueprints for the F-6D conversion. None of the P-51D Mustang microfilm showed any of the photoreconnaissance modifications, and many parts had to be made from photos, or from original parts that were duplicated. Schroeder’s Cavalier Mustang was used as a template for the interior installations, but when it came to the F-6 modifications, the restoration crew was on its own. “There are no diagrams for cable links, for instance, for the trim cables or the elevator cables, and are all modified in the rear fuselage to avoid the cameras. It’s different than a standard P-51D in the oxygen bay area as well, so we kind of had to experiment trying to come up with proper cable links,” said VadeBonCoeur. “I remember that being a challenge for me at the time, but we ended up making it all happen. I think we had samples of elevator cables, but we didn’t have samples of any of the trim cables. Those had disappeared from the fuselage years ago, so I didn’t really have anything to go off of. We kind of had to back-blueprint it and sort it all out. We just followed the original routing, which in an F-6D the elevator and trim cables are all routed differently than they are in a stock D.

There’s just not data available that we’ve been able to come up with that I’ve ever seen. The manuals show illustrations of how the cables were routed, but no specifics for cable links and things like that.”

Mating the wing to the fuselage was a first for VadeBonCoeur. “We had called a crane out to do the heavy lifting, and we looked at the weather radar before we got started. Of course, back in 1990, the weather radar wasn’t as good and no one had a smartphone to give one last peek to see how conditions had changed. We decided to go ahead and do it, and as soon as we got the airplane up, got the wing put in position, and were ready to lift the fuselage up, a thunderstorm hit,” VadeBonCoeur said. “We ended up putting that thing together in a pouring rainstorm, and of course, once we were done and the crane was ready to leave, it was beautiful. Fuselage to wing was in the middle of a rainstorm, the engine we did the same day and it went just fine.”

Inside the F-6D, the oxygen bottle arrangement is different from the standard P-51D. The -51D has two long and two short bottles in the aft fuselage while the F-6D uses large, bomber-size oxygen bottles. In addition, the ribs on the left side of the fuselage were changed to accommodate the camera installations. To access the cameras, an access panel was fitted to the starboard side of the fuselage, forward of the fuselage/tail production break.

“In comparison to what we do today, there’s really no comparison. A lot of it is just learning over the years. I think that we knew that the interior color that it is today wasn’t what it was, but Butch had already started that and it wasn’t in his best interest, or desire at that point, to go backwards and change it all,” said VadeBonCoeur. “We left it with interior Imron green that he had picked.”

Putting Her Back in the Air

When the restoration was nearly complete, Schroeder settled on a suitable paint scheme for the F-6D. He chose to replicate the markings of Lil’ Margaret flown by Capt. Clyde B. East, who, at age nineteen, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and entered the European war flying P-51As against targets along the enemy coast. He transferred to the U.S. Army Air Forces and was assigned to the Ninth Air Force’s 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron flying Supermarine Spitfires. The squadron transitioned into the P-51B, and then into the F-6D.

East participated in the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion, downing an Fw-190; the December 1944 Battle of the Bulge (one Bf-109); and in March and April 1945 downed another eleven enemy aircraft. By war’s end, East had thirteen confirmed aerial victories. After the war, he remained in the service, and later flew reconnaissance Mustangs and RF-80s during the Korean War. East retired from the U.S. Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in February 1965.

Lil’ Margaret’s first post restoration flight was done by John Dilley on June 18, 1993. “I was the second person to fly the airplane,” Schroeder said. “I guess it had this kind of an eerie feeling like somebody’s looking over your shoulder, which comes from the armor plating sitting right behind you, and trying to get used to looking through the gun sight. Originally the gun sight had kind of a gold colored lens in it and you had to look around it as you couldn’t look through it. We ended up changing that and putting in regular glass and that took care of the vision problem.

“I had quite a bit of time in the Mustang, having owned North American Maid before flying Lil’ Margaret. When flying the plane, the first thing I noticed was that Lil’ Margaret was heavier than the Cavalier P-51D because we had installed guns and ammunition, armor plating, and all that detail equipment. It probably adds up to a couple of hundred pounds.”


Schroeder has united East with the aircraft resplendent in his colors many times, and East and Lil’ Margaret have always drawn a big crowd when the two have been featured at the EAA’s Warbirds In Review at the annual airshow in Oshkosh. At EAA AirVenture 1993, Butch Schroeder’s Lil’ Margaret was recognized with the EAA Warbirds Grand Champion Award, and Mike VadeBonCoeur was given the Golden Wrench in recognition of his restoration work on the F-6D.

John Lane is seen at the controls of Lil' Margaret. Pilot/owner Butch Schroeder chose to restore his F-6D in the markings of twelve-victory ace Capt. Clyde B. East, who flew with the Ninth Air Force's 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, 10th Photographic Reconnaissance Group. This restoration was recognized with the World War II Grand Champion award at EAA AirVenture 1993. Image credit: David Leininger. Caption credit: Hidden Warbirds by Nicholas Veronico.

John Lane is seen at the controls of Lil’ Margaret. Pilot/owner Butch Schroeder chose to restore his F-6D in the markings of twelve-victory ace Capt. Clyde B. East, who flew with the Ninth Air Force’s 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, 10th Photographic Reconnaissance Group. This restoration was recognized with the World War II Grand Champion award at EAA AirVenture 1993. Image credit: David Leininger. Caption credit: Hidden Warbirds by Nicholas Veronico.

Reflecting on the restoration, VadeBonCoeur said, “I think the thing that most people probably appreciated about Lil’ Margaret was all the original details that went into this restoration,” said VadeBonCoeur. “I say original details meaning things like guns and the camera that was installed, and we put decals on. We made vinyl decals instead of what we do today, which uses water transfer materials like they did during the war, so in terms of authenticity it really is not anywhere close . . . I’d like to get another shot at it.

“At the time, Lil’ Margaret was certainly heralded as a really authentic airplane; however, today it is not anywhere close to the standards we do, or even other people do in a Mustang restoration. For instance, we made one North American Aviation inspection stamp during the F-6D rebuild. Today I’ve got a box full of them so every time I find a new one, we try to replicate it and use it in the rebuild. That’s one difference between what we do today and what we did back then, but at the time that level of detail had not been seen yet. When people did see Lil’ Margaret, they thought that attention to detail was really a nice touch. On top of that, it was an F-6D, and nobody had seen one with the camera, fuselage gas tank, the armor plating, all the wing guns installed, bomb racks that worked, and basically a stock instrument panel. Most Mustangs at the time were restored with gray interiors and modern avionics everywhere, leather interiors, and that was the standard. I think Lil’ Margaret was one of the first airplanes, if not the first, with so much original equipment. I think what we’ve done was really nice, but it was just something different—something people hadn’t seen before.”

In December 2012, Schroder is doing Lil’ Margaret’s annual inspection and the airplane has 158 hours on it. With pride, Schroeder said, “I’ve probably flown half of that.”

For Butch Schroeder the tale of a Mustang in a garage is true and he’s got flying proof!

Navy Harpoon on a Grass Strip

Lockheed’s PV-2 Harpoon has to be the most underappreciated of all the World War II U.S. Navy warbirds. The type entered service very late in the Pacific war with Patrol Bombing Squadron 139 (VPB-139) in the Aleutians. Harpoons flew long, over-water missions from their base at Attu to bomb and strafe Japanese targets more than 650 miles away in the Kuril Islands. The Kuril Island chain forms a boundary between the Sea of Okhotsk, which lies between Russia and Japan, and the Pacific Ocean. Lockheed’s Harpoon also saw service in the South Pacific as well.

Shipping and radar sites in and around Paramushiro and Shimushu Islands were favorite targets of the PV-2s of VPB-139. Harpoons could lock their dorsal turrets to face forward, increasing their firepower by two additional .50-cal. machine guns, making them ideal straffers. As combat veteran aircraft seeing action late in the war, Harpoons rarely came face-to-face with Japanese fighters, but they did, however, take a beating from Japanese anti-aircraft fire. Lockheed built 535 PV-2s, of which 35 were “D” models that featured eight .50-cal. guns in the nose, two in the aforementioned dorsal turret, and provisions for a twin .50-cal. gun pod under each wing. After the war ended, nearly all of the 35 PV-2D Harpoons constructed were parked at the navy’s storage facility at Litchfield Park, Arizona, outside Phoenix. The “D” models were, typically, factoryfresh aircraft with just ferry time in their log books, most delivered to the navy too late to see service.

When offered for sale in the late-1950s, Harpoons were quickly snapped up for a variety of aerial applications, from fire bomber to bug sprayer to insect bait disperser. Harpoons used as fire bombers were typically modified by removing all of the military equipment and installing a retardant tank in the bomb bay, while the bug sprayers were fitted with a bait tank in the fuselage and dispersal booms on the trailing edges of the wings. The insect bait dispersers had loading holes cut in the top of the fuselage, hoppers made from sheet metal installed in the fuselage, and augers pushing the bait pellets out to chutes along the trailing edge of the wing.

PV-2D BuNo 84062 was the third from the last PV-2D built by Lockheed at its Burbank, California, factory. This gun nose Harpoon was accepted by the navy on September 21, 1945, and, after modifications, delivered three months later on December 11 to the aircraft acceptance group at NAS Terminal Island in the Los Angeles Harbor. BuNo 84062 was then transferred to the Naval Auxiliary Air Station Holtville, California, before reporting to its final station in February 1946 at the aircraft storage pool at NAS Litchfield Park. Here it was sealed and held in storage in the navy’s reserve aircraft pool should there come a day when the service might need additional patrol aircraft. That day never came. The navy’s fleet of more modern Grumman S-2 Trackers and P2V Neptunes was fulfilling the service’s needs, and by 1956, the Harpoons were no longer needed. On December 17, 1956, BuNo 84062 was stricken from the navy’s inventory, having accumulated only seven hours of total time flight time.

A nice PV-2 Harpoon could be bought at one of the Litchfield Park surplus sales for between $2,000 and $4,000—depending upon who was bidding. A gentleman named Ralph Johnson acquired a number of Harpoons to service the agricultural market, and he bought BuNo 84062 on August 12, 1959, for $3,678.89. Most of Johnson’s aircraft were flown as bug sprayers, although four were modified with a 1,200- gallon tank to fight fires. BuNo 84062 was one such aircraft; its bomb bay doors were removed and the tank hung in their place. The tank was then given an aerodynamic fairing, and the plane painted overall white with red trim. Johnson soon sold the plane and it flew many seasons as Tanker 101 dropping fire retardant. When the U.S. government ceased twin-engine air tanker operations, BuNo 84062 was used to spray insecticide to combat a grasshopper infestation in Wyoming.

In 1988, a different Ralph Johnson purchased the aircraft with the intention of putting it back in warbird configuration. This Johnson and his son Stephen owned a number of warbirds, including the B-29 Fertile Myrtle, a dozen or so PV-2s, and in the late 1970s Stephen brought back a number of P-51s that were being surplused by the Indonesian Air Force. Six years after acquiring BuNo 84062, Johnson had the Harpoon flown to his ranch in Northern California.

Johnson’s plans for BuNo 84062 never materialized, and the aircraft and some spare engines were later sold to Everts Air Cargo of Fairbanks, Alaska. The company wanted the Harpoon and its spares primarily for the R-2800 engines, which it needed for its fleet of Curtiss C-46 Commandos. The Commando can haul 12,000 pounds into and out of runways as short as 3,500 feet; thus the aircraft is extremely versatile in the wilds of Alaska. Everts Air Cargo immediately took possession of the spare engines and moved those items to Alaska, leaving the Harpoon on Johnson’s property with the promise to come get it . . . soon.

Becoming a Lucky Find

And there it sat. Day in, day out. Month in, month out. Before anyone realized, sixteen years had passed. Finding a former navy patrol bomber sitting on a dirt strip nearly seventy years after the war is truly a lucky find. Many local pilots knew of the old, twin-engine, former air tanker because they had caught a glimpse of it from the air. It was, however, parked on the far end of Johnson’s strip so it was not visible from the road. Its location protected it as no one got inside and the aircraft had not been vandalized during its enforced stay on the dirt strip. To illustrate how secure this aircraft had been, the navy eightday clock was still in the instrument panel, and the clocks are the first things souvenir hunters grab.

When the Johnson family decided to sell the ranch in late 2009, Everts Air Cargo was told it had to move the plane or it would be scrapped on site. The distance between Everts Air Cargo’s operation in Fairbanks and the plane’s location north of California’s Napa Valley made recovering the Harpoon an uneconomical prospect. However, well aware of the historic value of the former navy patrol bomber, Cliff Everts and Marty Hall began looking for a museum that could recover the Harpoon and give it a good home.

At the end of July 2010, the Stockton Field Aviation Museum, Stockton, California, was approached about accepting the aircraft as a donation on the condition that it would have it off the property by October 9, 2010. That same offer had been made to a couple of other aviation heritage groups, but none had the funding, expertise, or the infrastructure to get the plane flying in such a short amount of time.

The Stockton Field Aviation Museum’s founder, Taigh Ramey, is also the proprietor of Vintage Aircraft, a maintenance and restoration shop specializing in the Beech 18/C-45 and warbirds. Vintage Aircraft holds the supplemental type certificate for the Aerospace wing spar strap kit and also performs kit installations, maintenance, and restoration, so there’s always a corral of Twin Beeches on the company’s ramp at Stockton Airport. To recover the Harpoon, the Stockton Field Aviation Museum would draw upon Vintage Aircraft’s wealth of radial engine, sheet metal, and warbird experience that would be needed to recover the Harpoon from a remote location.

“I went to take a look at the Harpoon, and as ugly as she was, she still looked beautiful to me,” said Taigh Ramey. “She had sunk into the ground so far that she was resting on her belly tank. Amazingly enough, the tires held air and we rolled her out of the rut she was sitting in. Several aviation folks looked at the Harpoon and they all said it was too far gone to save. They said that the corrosion was too great and that the control cables were all rusted. When I looked at Tanker 101, I saw a different aircraft all together. No corrosion at all and the rusted cables were actually covered in peralketone, which is the preservative that was used at the factory. The cables are about as good as they day they were manufactured. She had not been cut up and heavily modified like almost all of the other surviving Harpoons and she still retained many of the original small fittings, floor structure, and bulkheads. I remember thinking how she could easily be returned to her wartime configuration.” After inspecting the patrol bomber/air tanker, Ramey, the museum, and the staff of Vintage Aircraft agreed to the challenge of flying the plane out. They had seven months and nine days to do it in.

“We flew up in the Twin Beech to work on the Harpoon, which was about eighty-four miles as the Beech flies each way,” Ramey said. “The Twin Beech was great for this job as a sky truck hauling all of us and our tools, parts, fuel, and oil. We made about a dozen trips in the Beech and one in the van/trailer hauling the big wing jacks for the gear swing.”

The crew’s first order of business was to send a family of ground squirrels packing. Along with the furry-tailed nut-gatherers, their home and pantry had to be removed from the right wing. Opening all of the inspection panels, the Vintage Aircraft crew found that there was very little corrosion on the aircraft. This was credited to the navy and Lockheed’s liberal use of anti-corrosion sealants and the aircraft’s inland, dry location. Most of the exposed steel parts had “California rust” (surface rust, as opposed to the deep rust seen in the northeastern part of the country), but those parts could be easily cleaned or replaced.

The engines were next to receive attention. The oil screens were pulled and only small amounts of carbon were present. No metal in the screens was a very good sign. Ramey said the left fuel system was in decent shape. The boost pump came alive and pumped new fuel into the carburetor, which started soaking the diaphragms and seals. “Later that day, we were able to start the left engine,” he said. “She didn’t fight us much at all.” The right side fuel pump was a different story. Water had gotten into the tank and rusted the pump. The second day, the right pump was replaced and the engine fired right up.

“Both engines ran okay, but the right didn’t like going much above 1,600 rpm,” Ramey said. “Both of the carburetors were overhauled just before the Harpoon was flown to California in 1994, so overhauling the carbs was likely going to be mandatory, and the corrosion found in the right carb screen made the decision pretty easy. Off to Aero Accessories they went. The fresh overhauled carbs sure looked pretty, especially next to the crusty-looking engines.”

The Vintage Aircraft crew found new wheels, brakes, tubes, and tires for the Harpoon. These were built up, then flown to the Johnson Ranch for installation. The hydraulic system was in good shape as well. There were a few weeping seals, but nothing that would prevent the aircraft from being ferried back to Stockton. The seals would be addressed after the bomber was moved.

“With the new carbs, wheels, and brakes it was time to drive her around, and that was a lot of fun,” Ramey said. “She sure kicked up some dust. One of our runs was done with the leading edges between the fuselage and engines removed. While scooting down the runway at a good clip, all of the dust and dirt that was kicked up by the props went right in the open leading edges, which ported right under the pilot’s and copilot’s seat. While pulling forty-two inches of manifold pressure rolling down the runway, I was smiling from ear-to-ear and spitting dirt and crud out of my mouth at the same time. After that, it was time to get the shop vac out once again!

“The power runs were great, although we found a lot of carbon in the right oil screen. We dumped the oil and installed an oil filter to catch any more carbon that might be swimming around, which worked as the screen was clean the next time we checked it.”

Deadline Fast Approaching

The Vintage Aircraft crew finished preparing the aircraft for the ferry flight to Stockton and the time to move the plane was on the horizon. Ramey was working with the local FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) to obtain a letter of authorization, known as an LOA, to fly the Harpoon by himself. For aircraft over 12,500 pounds gross weight (the Harpoon weighs in at 33,000 pounds), the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) require a type rating, but there are no schools where a pilot can go get typed in the PV-2.

“There is a regulation in the FARs that allows for an LOA in lieu of a type rating for ferry, maintenance, and flight training for those who can demonstrate collateral experience that would allow for the safe operation of the aircraft,” Ramey said. “I have a type rating in a B-25 with limited time in the DC-3, B-17, B-24, and some PV-2D time, but that was more than twenty years ago in my friend Doug Lacy’s Harpoon. I think the 3,500 hours in the Twin Beech is what helped the most. After flying the Beech, the Harpoon feels like a heavy, slower-responding version of about the same aircraft.

“My local FSDO tossed my request around for two weeks and then decided that I should talk to Sacramento FSDO as the aircraft was in their district. The Sacramento folks were very nice and were familiar with our shop and work and were very helpful. They issued the LOA and a ferry permit within a few hours.” Having cleared the paperwork hurdle, it was time to put BuNo 84062 back into the air.

The runway at the Johnson Ranch ends at a road, and across that road are a hill and a number of houses. This meant that Ramey would have to make a sharp right turn after takeoff, and there were not many options if an engine quit as the bomber clawed for altitude. There is only so much ground checking and engine testing that can be done before a flight, thus engine performance was a concern for everyone. After the carburetor overhauls, the engines ran fine on the ground and were not making metal. The oil analysis looked normal, especially for engines that had been sitting for so long.

“The engines are factory new engines and were installed not long [hours wise] before her last flight to California and have around twenty hours since they were built . . . sixty-five years ago!” Ramey said. “They are Ford-built engines and are twenty-five serial numbers apart. Having said that, there was still a big concern as to whether they were going to hold up after all these years. In the air the engines ran great except for the high oil temps, which was a huge concern. Both temps were too high, but the pressure remained steady and solid. Upon landing we found out that we had packed the coolers with weeds and dirt kicked up by the propellers on the takeoff roll. After cleaning, this issue went away.

“Flying the Harpoon was a dream. When I ran her down the runway at fifty-two inches of power, she felt good, and I believe the Twin Beech experience is a wonderful trainer for the Harpoon. Everything felt right so the only real apprehension was over the engines holding together. They did and the flight was wonderful.”

Ramey and crew flew the Harpoon off the Johnson Ranch with six days to spare. It had to be off the property on October 9, and it lifted off on October 3!

Preserving and Outfitting

Once the Harpoon was in Stockton and the major mechanical systems were inspected and overhauled, it was time to get to the cosmetics and the details of the interior of the patrol plane. The interior paint was original, but in good shape. “I have always gravitated towards keeping things original as opposed to full-blown restoration even if it’s a bit scrappy,” Ramey said. “I prefer faded original paint to shiny new paint any day, but not many share my views. It’s only original once . . .”

The most visible external change, and one that the Vintage Aircraft crew wanted to tackle first was the removal of the retardant tank. The tank and its fairings came off easily, but the bomber looked naked. A set of bomb bay doors was acquired and installed. Just that one change took the plane from air tanker to bomber and visually demonstrated that the restoration was underway and making progress.

The interior paint was looking good, so the process of locating and installing all of the original equipment began. For the radio operator’s station, all of the original components were found and installed, including the automatic direction finder. This was an SCR-269G, an army radio that was installed in navy Harpoons. The SCR-269 was essentially the same as the navy ARN-7, which became standard equipment that was used well after World War II. The ARN-7 used two antennas, namely a loop antenna or football-shaped antenna mounted on the top of the Harpoon and many other bomber aircraft. The loop was a directional antenna that could be rotated to home in on a signal. The other antenna was a simple wire that was called the sense antenna. The two signals were used to compare and determine the direction to the signal. On the Harpoon, the sense antenna was the straight wire from the forward mast to the aft mast.

The radar operator’s position is located on the right side of the fuselage and can be seen when the entry door is open. The main radar was the APS-3 search and targeting radar that was widely used throughout World War II. “It must have been a good set to have had such a long run,” Ramey said. “There are a lot of attachments and modifications for the basic set, which I am learning were installed in our late Harpoon.” The APS-3 could also be used as an IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) set, which is an early version of today’s transponders that now provide aircraft identity, speed, direction, and altitude. The IFF set would send out an interrogation signal and receive responses from aircraft in its vicinity. Used with the APS-3 radar the IFF operator could see on his scope if a target was friendly or a foe. “The code for the reply was changed daily, so if you used an old code you were treated as a foe,” Ramey said. “Ships, submarines, and of course other aircraft had the IFF gear. The IFF was also quite secret as you didn’t want the code of the day falling into enemy hands. The transmitter/ receiver had explosives installed to destroy the insides of the set during a crash through an impact switch or could be manually set off with a destruct switch. IFF gear is hard to find and we are lucky tohave a full set to install in the Harpoon.”

One of the late war modifications that Harpoons had was the addition of the APA-16 adapter that allowed more accurate bomb, torpedo, and even rocket release through the radar.

“What is more important to me is for any World War II aircrew to get back inside our Harpoon and be able to sit in their old crew position,” Ramey said. “I want them to be able to sit down, and be able to fire up the radar or radios. To hear the dynamotors running and to smell the electronics when they are warm is just as important to me as an accurate paint job. If just one Harpoon vet says, ‘It’s just like The exterior of the Harpoon was painted in the correct shades of blue, the fuselage with flat, and the wings with semi-gloss, per the navy specifications. The last three digits of the bureau number have been painted on the nose, and an operational Martin turret occupies the dorsal position once again. Roger Cain I remember . . .’ then I will be happy beyond belief and all of the effort will be worthwhile ten times over.”

In addition to the radio operator’s and the radar operator’s stations, a navigator’s position has been installed and fully outfitted. A Martin top turret has been installed along with an F-56 aerial camera that looks out the lower fuselage to record strike damage. It is very impressive to see many of these systems working, and additional ones will be returned to service as the restoration progresses.

Through the generosity of a corporate donor, paint was donated to the Stockton Field Aviation Museum to put the Harpoon back into its original navy colors. Two weeks before the air races in Reno, that deep rich blue was sprayed onto the Harpoon. The next morning, the paint was still wet—not tacky, still wet. It was discovered that the wrong catalyst had been sent, and the paint would never have dried. So the Vintage Aircraft crew, their teenage kids, and a bunch of friends got out their razor blades and began scraping the wet sea-blue paint from the bomber. No matter how fast they worked, it seemed like a monumental, never-ending task—but they got it done.

New paint and the proper catalyst, as well as cleaning supplies that arrived by overnight courier, and the painting process began anew. After working all night, the bomber looked fantastic when rolled out into the central California sunshine.

“I am so proud of my crew at Vintage Aircraft. They are wonderful, and this is just the latest example of what they can do. I think there isn’t anything they can’t do once we commit to it,” Ramey said. And with that, the Harpoon made its first appearance in authentic, flat, nonspecular sea-blue paint at the National Aviation Heritage Invitational at the 2012 National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada.

Today there are three airworthy PV-2 Harpoons, several in museums on display, and another two dozen in various states of restoration, preservation, or storage. A gun nose Harpoon in the air is a rare sight indeed, and “062” is one of the most authentic of them all.


Excerpted from Hidden Warbirds: The Epic Stories of Finding, Recovering, and Rebuilding WWII’s Lost Aircraft by Nicholas A. Veronico.

Text Copyright 2013 by Nicholas A. Veronico.

Reprinted with permission from Zenith Press.

NICHOLAS A. VERONICO  comes from a family of pilots—both his mother and father held private tickets, and his brother is a commercial pilot who flies for a major airline. Veronico got his start in aviation journalism in 1984. He has written more than 25 books on aviation, military, and local history subjects, including Hidden Warbirds: The Epic Stories of Finding, Recovering & Rebuilding WWII’s Lost Aircraft. In 1995, he started the website Wreckchasing.com, which has become the central meeting place for the wreckchasing community. Veronico has explored more than 100 aircraft crash sites throughout the United States.

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