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Vintage Warplanes Keep Past Alive
Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.
By Leigh E. Smith Jr.
Not far from El Paso in the small community of Santa Teresa, N. M., a P-40 Warhawk flies overhead. Close behind it, a P-51 Mustang buzzes the Santa Teresa airport in a simulated strafing run. Someone unfamiliar with the area would think we were being attacked by vintage military aircraft. But the planes are all part of the War Eagles Air Museum.
P-40 Warhawk showing the "Flying Tigers" shark mouth,on display at the War Eagles Air Museum, Santa Teresa, N.M. Photo by Leigh E. Smith
Most members of this non-profit organization are veteran military pilots who seek out, purchase and restore to flying condition military aircraft from the World War II and Korean conflict eras.
The twenty-plus planes are housed in an enormous, temperature-controlled hangar. Several of the more famous fighter planes that gained recognition in the skies over Europe and the Pacific will immediately gain the attention of veterans, historians and other visitors.
F-4U Corsair: Gregory "Pappy" Boyington and his "Black Sheep Squadron" flew this type of plane in World War II. Photo by Leigh E. Smith
An F-4U Corsair, the famed “gull wing” fighter that soared over the Pacific, is one of the planes on display. This type of fighter was made popular by the Marine Corps fighter ace Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington.
Boyington shot down six Japanese Zeros (so-called because of the red circle, or zero, of the Japanese flag on the plane) while he was flying a P-40 Warhawk as a member of the Flying Tigers in China. The Flying Tigers, officially the American Volunteer Group or AVG were commanded by General Claire Chennault in the China-Burma-India theater of operations during World War II.
In 1942, Boyington rejoined the Marine Corps and shot down 22 more Japanese planes while flying the Corsair. He was shot down himself in January 1944 and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in a Japanese prison camp. Boyington was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Currently there are several ongoing restoration projects which will add to the museum’s growing collection. One of the most notable of the projects is the restoration of two Russian Tupolev TU-2 bombers that were found in a cave in China and acquired from the Chinese. There are only two other planes like them in the United States, and according to museum director Skip Trammell, they will never fly. He hopes that one of the Santa Teresa acquisitions will fly when restoration is completed.
The museum owner, John MacGuire, has several volunteers on his staff who work on the planes and conduct tours of the museum. Tour coordinator Guy Dority was a radio operator/gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress in World War II. The “Jarrin Jenny” that he flew on was the first American-manned bomber to land in the United Kingdom – on July 1, 1942.
Each plane in the museum has its own story to tell. A TBM3E Avenger, a Navy carrier plane, gained fame in the South Pacific and is the type of plane that former President George Bush flew while serving as a naval aviator during World War II.
A P-40 Warhawk also shares space in the museum and is flying condition. The P-40 made its claim to fame as the plane used by the Flying Tigers in Asia in World War II. Jet aircraft from the Korean War era also hold a special place in the museum. An F-86 Sabre that fought Russian Mig-15s over Mig Alley in Korea and a Mig-15 itself both have a prominent place here. During the Korea Conflict, F-86 Sabre jets shot down 792 Migs with a loss of only 76 Sabres.
One of the most remarkable stories to come out of World War II involved two types of aircraft that are part of the museum. A Piper Cub observation plane used by US forces and a German Fieseler Storch, both unarmed observation planes, have the distinction of being the last two aircraft to be engaged in known aerial combat over Europe in World War II.
The pilot and observer in the Piper Cub named “Miss Me” used .45-caliber pistols and a .30-caliber M1 rifle to shoot down the Fieseler Storch. The Storch landed in a field in Germany with the Piper Cub right behind it, and the German pilot and observer were taken prisoner. Although the planes in the museum are not the exact ones involved in the conflict, they are the same type.
Planes are not the only exhibits in the museum. Antique automobiles are parked next to the planes, and uniforms and other aviation equipment fill display cases.
This is just a bit of the history behind each of these aircraft. To appreciate fully what the museum has to offer, one needs to set a Saturday aside and do nothing but browse through the hangar and listen to the stories that the members of the museum have to tell.