Chariots of the Sky
His life’s work may have been ordained for John Lane Jr., in the World War II skies over the Pacific Ocean before he was born in 1947. His father, U.S. Army Air Force Capt. John Lane Sr., was an air ace who shot down six Japanese aircraft with his Lockheed P-38 Lightning, the lethally armed, two-engine fighter whose gun-spitting death and twin tail booms won the foreboding Japanese nickname, “Fork Tail Devil.”
Today, John Lane Jr., toils in Jerome at restoring and piloting World War II combat warbirds that were flown by “America’s greatest generation” in the war in which air power emerged as a dominant and convincing combat force.
Lane, 57, incontestably is in a rare aviation occupation, perhaps second only in numbers to astronauts and cosmonauts.
And he’s surely the envy of aviation buffs who hunger to get their hands on a World War II fighter and live the fantasy of goggle-and-scarf daring men—no women combat pilots then—who tangled with German, Italian and Japanese pilots in the deadly aerial ballet of dog fights. Those aerial battles relied on steely courage and seat-of-the-pants piloting skills a generation before exotic electronic control systems, super accurate aiming sights, radar, rockets, smart bombs or antipressure G-suits.
Lane calculates he’s logged 6,500 hours flying at least 90 different models of World War II aircraft. These include virtually all the glamour fighters, such as the Flying Tigers P-40 Warhawk, P-51 Mustang, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-38 Lightning, F4F Wildcat, F6F Hellcat, F4U and FG-1 Corsair, and British-made Hawker Sea Fury. Bombers he’s flown include the B-25 Mitchell, A-26 Invader, and TBM Avenger torpedo bomber. He’s also flown transports such as the four-engine Douglas C-54 Skymaster; and most trainer aircraft that graduated hundreds of thousands of U.S. pilots in the 1940s.
His is no antiseptic relationship with aircraft older than he. It is a deep, emotional bond. His wife, Nancy, recalls when Lane telephoned from Indiana after flying a bulky Republic Thunderbolt P-47, the type that ravaged German ground forces and equipment with treetop strafing attacks and was lovingly named “The Jug” because of its enormous engine.
“He was choked up,” she remembers. She guessed, and Lane confirmed, he was emotionally overcome flying the P-47—another aircraft his father flew in World War II.
Restoring ancient combat airplanes has been Lane’s calling—he calls it “a passion”—most of his adult life.
After working on a rare collection at the Champlin aircraft museum in Mesa, Ariz., Lane and his wife launched Airpower Unlimited in 1988 along with a small group of artisans. They set up shop in a dishwater gray, 7,500-square foot hangar at the Jerome County Airport, west of U.S. 93 seven miles north of Twin Falls.
Except for the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum’s large restoration activity, only about two dozen shops similar to Lane’s are operating in the United States. His, however, is regarded as a leader.
A deceivingly taciturn man built like a stocky NFL running back with the quick eyes and sure hands of a fighter pilot, Lane, by nature and temperament, is sparse with words, particularly when asked about work that captivates the warbird community with its perfection.
The record shows that Lane’s shop of fewer than a dozen craftsmen, and one craftswoman, has been honored twice by the Experimental Aircraft Association with the cherished Golden Wrench trophy. The first award came in 1996 for restoration of a Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bomber—the type President George H.W. Bush ditched in the Pacific during World War II as a young Navy pilot—and the second in 2003 for restoring a Navy FG-1D Corsair fighter.
As important as peer honors can be, Lane considers his real reward the clients who leave prized aircraft in his care for years at a time, sometimes with final instructions that reveal the intensity of warbird devotion.
When the owner of a PV-2 Harpoon –a maritime patrol version of the famed Lockheed Hudson bomber first delivered to the British in World War II—asked Lane to begin what probably will be a five-year restoration of the big twin-engine plane, his final words were, “Ignore the costs. Restore it. Whatever it takes.”
The prize-winning Goodyear FG-1D Corsair fighter that Lane restored took 13 years and 17,000 man-hours and an investment by pilot-owner Gary Kohs that can only be imagined. Kohs, ironically, is the owner of Michigan-based Fine Art Models, which manufactures small museum quality models of trains, automobiles and, yes, fighter planes.
Compare that laborious restoration to the plane’s original production: A combat-ready Corsair was produced during World War II in about 16 days.
Makers of the wartime Corsair—Chance Vought, Goodyear and Brewster—churned out 12,654 of the single-engine fighters. The plane was distinctive because of its enormous, 18-cylinder, 2,000-horsepower engine, huge four-bladed propeller and the bent, inverted gull wing. It is the plane popularized by irreverent 22-victory Marine ace “Pappy” Boyington and his Black Sheep squadron in the Pacific.
One of Lane’s early, most challenging restorations involved a muddy Corsair wreckage fished out of Lake Washington, where it crashed in 1950. After restoration and a new paint job done in war colors, the plane was put on permanent display in Seattle’s Museum of Flight.
In all, Lane’s shop has transformed more than a dozen ugly ducklings into beauties, including a Battle of Britain Hawker Hurricane.
Restoring 60- to 65-year-old airplanes is not merely a matter of scraping off old paint, spraying on a new coat, tuning the engine and then firing up for a hop.
Owners sometimes demand authenticity, down to the smallest screws and old instrumentation not manufactured for decades. So, as Lane explains, the hunt always begins for rare parts. Some are found with dealers in U.S. and foreign shops who had the foresight to hoard old accessories. Some parts come from cannibalized aircraft lying in aviation graveyards. A few items must be tooled by hand, or “reconstructed,” as the trade says.
Off the main hangar floor is an amazing archival room stocked with operating manuals and complete listings for millions of parts in a long list of aircraft, plus photos of every step of work on every aircraft he restores.
Beyond parts, an old aircraft is completely disassembled, stripping out wiring and control cables, removing instruments and control surfaces and cleaning the interior of wings and fuselage that haven’t seen daylight for a half-century.
Lane’s team, incidentally, has another distinction: It includes a Jill-of-all-trades, Rachel Gumbel, who was a crew chief on the Air Force’s third largest transport, the four-engine C-141 jet Starlifter.
Upstairs in a neatly furnished office, Nancy Lane handles paperwork, occasionally babysits granddaughters Katie, 4, and Brook, 2, who have an adjoining small room with toys and TV. Lane’s daughter, Jennifer Bell, an artist, occasionally fills in at the office when the Lanes are away.
Shop foreman Hugh Syme delights telling about long-forgotten memorabilia found inside of old aircraft: a buffalo head penny, a metal plate with the name of a World War II “Rosy the Riveter” worker at the Goodyear Corsair factory in Akron and a screwdriver from 60 years ago.
Syme observes that yesteryear’s fighters were vastly more complicated in construction than today’s aircraft with their simplified control systems and composite construction materials.
Since warbird aficionados regard Lane as the “Corsair specialist”—he has restored four—it was natural for a new client, Frank Arrufat, to turn to Lane for a Corsair restoration.
Arrufat, 64, of El Paso, Texas, a former TWA pilot with 26,000 flying hours, retired while captain on the twin-engine MD-80 jetliner. But this former Vietnam-era Navy pilot, who flew the twin-engine C-1 Trader off aircraft carriers, still yearns to fly. His goal is to restore a rundown FG-1D Corsair fighter he discovered in El Salvador at a government airfield, bought for a relative pittance, $10,000, and shipped to Lane’s shop. Then if restoration is on time, Arrufat will fly it at 66 years of age and after having gone through, at a minimum, tens of thousands of dollars.
Arrufat’s Corsair, which he works on with Lane’s craftsmen every few months when he comes to Jerome, is disassembled—wing segments, a partial fuselage and tail surfaces sitting on rollway frames in the hangar. Such a melancholy sight for an airplane whose mighty conquests in the air in the 1940s were dreaded by the Japanese and made aces of its pilots. The Corsair also served early in the Korean War until the arrival of jets.
So, what drives owners of old warbirds to devote years to restoring them at kingly costs? Arrufat speaks for most with a romantic intensity.
“They’re pieces of history,” he says while rummaging through parts on a tool bench in the hangar and Syme cleans the interior of one of the Corsair’s wing segments. “Treasures. They represent a period of American productivity that will never again be matched. Imagine if someone found an ancient chariot in Italy,” he asks. “Wouldn’t they want to preserve that?”
Lane chimes in. “Preserving history,” he explains. “Life expectancy (of the planes) when they were built was a year or so. People never dreamed they’d last 60 years.”
Some of the old planes are being flown today by pilots of yesteryear. The celebrated sound barrier-busting test pilot, Col. Chuck Yaeger, 81, flies an F-51 Mustang fighter. Former astronaut Frank Borman, 76, flies one, too.
It’s worth remembering these aging aircraft only cruise between 150 miles per hour and 350 miles per hour—a fraction of today’s jet speeds. But their unique lines, their roles in history and their age give them an allure that not even first-generation jet fighters now reaching the surplus market can offer.
For those on the prowl for a warbird, there’s a 750-page “Warbird Directory” listing the whereabouts of aircraft and their owners.
Old warbirds still apparently are plentiful. Lane says American-built World War II aircraft are being found in places such as Russia, which was sent thousands of U.S. aircraft in World War II, as well as in Third World countries that are acquiring first generation military jet fighters and selling their prop-driven World War II aircraft.
Collectors are scouring the world, finding them in lake and mountain crash sites and several under deep Arctic ice. The EAA estimates that 1,056 warbirds are in museums, 684 are flying, 458 are being restored and 522 are in storage, although even those numbers are probably incomplete. •