HOW DOES A MUSEUM BEGIN?
Visitors to the Military Aviation Museum often wonder where these marvelous airplanes came from. The heart of the collection was formed and created by Gerald and Elaine Yagen, longtime residents of Virginia Beach and founder of Tidewater Tech, now Centura College, and the Aviation Institute of Maintenance schools. Yagen had long been a general aviation pilot but never had the opportunity to serve in the military. All of his flight experience had been in civilian, general aviation flying and most often in his corporate, twin engine Piper Aerostar aircraft.
It was in the fall of 1994, when he was attending an annual convention for fellow Aerostar aircraft owners being held in Canada. One evening, at the CWH Museum in Hamilton, Ontario, they attended a dinner dance among all the many historic airplanes of the museum. The convention participants had been asked to dress up for the party in attire from the 1940’s. He located a former B-17 bomber uniform and they came as a wartime couple. It was here that evening, that he decided that it might be exciting to obtain just one of these historic aircraft for himself to fly on weekends over Virginia Beach.
He soon was searching for a World War II-era aircraft to acquire, but quickly learned that such airplanes were quite difficult to locate and buy. There were occasional unfinished projects available, but not many airworthy. Eventually, he settled on the wrecked remains of a Curtiss P-40E Warhawk recovered from north of the Arctic Circle in Russia. During World War II, the Roosevelt administration provided arms and ammunitions to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program.
Gerald Yagen with the P-51 Mustang
“Double Trouble Two”
The Curtiss P-40 fighter planes were built in Buffalo, New York, and transported by ship to the Middle East. They were reassembled in Persia, modern day Iran, and Russian pilots flew them to the eastern front, where they fought against German Messerschmitts. This particular airplane had been shot down while protecting the far northern seaport of Murmansk. With the recent fall of Soviet Communism, a Swiss watch manufacturer had recovered several such planes and sold them to a restorer in a small town in Kansas. A deal was quickly struck, and it was moved to Norfolk to begin restoration.
About the same time, a second aircraft was located right here in Yagen’s hometown. He had heard about a rare Chance Vought Corsair fighter plane being stored in an owner’s backyard in the Bay Island neighborhood of northern Virginia Beach. The aircraft was disassembled, but mostly there. It had been originally on display at the War Memorial Museum in Newport News, who had obtained it from a local VFW Post. This rare and historic aircraft had flown off the Intrepid aircraft carrier during the Battle of Okinawa during the Second World War.
It was decided to commence first with the restoration of the Curtiss P-40. A small team of technicians were employed to do the work in an office warehouse near the Norfolk airport. They built jigs and began work on the disassembly and reconstruction of the fuselage, while Yagen searched all over the world for the endless parts and components necessary to rebuild such a 50-year-old aircraft. Many of the needed pieces could no longer be ordered from the original manufactures, as most of the firms had long ago ceased operations.
On one of these trips to New Zealand, in search of numerous small parts and pieces, he learned of a local team that were successfully completing their own P-40 restoration. They had already built the needed assembly jigs and fabricated some of the unobtainable parts necessary to complete such an aircraft. It was decided to transport the partial Curtiss P-40 to Auckland, New Zealand, and have them complete its restorations, which could be finished at a much faster pace. Within two years, the airplane had its first test flight and was displayed at the Easter air show of Omaka on the South Island. When completed, it had been painted in the markings of Tex Hill, who flew such a plane for the AVG Flying Tigers. It was then disassembled and sent by ocean container back to Virginia.
Meanwhile, Yagen had begun looking for a training aircraft in order for him to learn how to fly and land one of these tailwheel airplanes. He had thousands of hours experience flying conventional corporate aircraft, but no flight experience with tailwheel airplanes. He heard about a bright yellow, Stearman biplane in Texas that was being sold. It was purchased over the phone and a pilot was engaged to fly it to Virginia in the winter of 1997. Thousands were built by Boeing during the Second World War to perform primary flight training for America’s young pilots rushing off to war. Many of these aircraft survived into later years as crop dusters and this particular aircraft had recently been restored to its original condition.
The Stearman was a good training aircraft to learn the basics of tailwheel landings, but not heavy enough to prepare a pilot for the speeds of a World War II fighter plane. It was decided to acquire a faster and heavier aircraft.
South Africa had recently chosen Nelson Mandela as its new leader and the worldwide arms embargo had been lifted against their military. Prior to this, they had been training their pilots in surplus World War II military training aircraft such as the North American Texans. All their AT-6’s came on the market at the same time, so the price for such a flying aircraft was relatively inexpensive in the beginning. It was decided to select one particular low time airplane designated as the Navy SNJ-4 version. It had a recent engine overhaul, but even more important was that it never served as a trainer with the American Navy. Instead, it had a unique history as a utility aircraft that served with American forces in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, while the Japanese had invaded and were fighting there. Subsequently, this airplane was repainted back to its original dark blue Pacific colors, based upon a photograph found in an Alaska museum of its operations at Dutch Harbor during the war. It had been used to carry mail and military personnel from one field to another.
No one imagined that these two training aircraft and a 50-year-old propeller airplane undergoing reconstruction in New Zealand would grow into one of America’s largest collection of historic airplanes from the last century. Today, these rare airplanes are on display and fly from the Virginia Beach airport. They have been saved and preserved for future generations to enjoy and marvel.