AT Hall of Fame, Military Surplus

The Soplata Airplane Sanctuary

Among a stand of trees near Newbury, OH sits a little collection of junked aircraft. Walter Soplata, the son of Czech immigrants, began buying surplus aircraft in 1947 while working at a company in Cleveland that scraps such aircraft. He is a true Toasterhead because he couldn’t bear the thought of these magnficent machines being dismantled and reprocessed into pop cans and carabiners. So, he started buying the rarest ones and transporting them to his back yard.

The collection is impressive. His first plane was a 1920s American Eagle biplane. He has two North American Twin Mustangs (an XP-82 and F-82E with the more powerful Allison engines). There’s a prototype Douglas AD Skyraider. Even a ski-equipped Lockheed P2V Neptune that was part of an expedition to Antarctica in the 1950s.

And there’s a B-25.

After watching Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Mr. Soplata began pining for a B-25. Unlike most of us, when Soplata wanted a plane he was most likely to get one. A B-25, though. That’s quite a goal. In the 1960s when old warbirds didn’t have the collectible value they do now, they would be sold for the scrap value of the metal. Those old fighters were a few hundred bucks. A bomber would be much more.

Soplata didn’t let that stop him and pretty soon he got a lead on a B-25 that had made a wheels-up landing at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati and was for sale as scrap. He was on it, tracking down the owner and negotiating a price — $500. He hauled it home and put it in a place of honor in the sanctuary.

Soon after, the military realized that they didn’t have enough aircraft for all the new air museums they were building. Men from all flying branches of the military came calling and hoping to score one of Soplata’s aircraft for reconditioning into museum pieces. He sold a few and hung on to others. All the while frustrated and amazed at the military’s lack of forethought.

Around the same time, the military decided that sending unarmed and flyable aircraft out the door in surplus auctions wasn’t a good idea. They began demilitarizing all aircraft, which usually meant cutting them up in ways that they could never be flown again. This broke Soplata’s heart. He continued to acquire the wrecked-on-purpose aircraft, including a Convair B-36 and Martin B-57 Canberra, as tributes to their former lives. The one he never got was a Douglas TBD Devastator, and now no Devastators have survived.

Soplata was pushed out of the market in the 1970s when the restoration movement took hold. He turned his collecting skills to other pursuits and sold some of the aircraft to pay for his new collections. Most of the aircraft he has sold have been restored to flying condition, including the B-25.

If it hadn’t been for the passion of this man, some of these aircraft may have been completely wiped out of existence. Today, some of these aircraft are enjoying a new life in the air, or as museum displays so that we can look at these relics of the early days of flight with our own eyes. For that, we all owe him a debt of gratitude.

[Ed. Thanks to Alex Kierstein for telling me of this fantastic place. Also, thanks to the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine for the article from which much of the information I learned was gleaned. The article, written by Soplata’s son, can be found here, and is highly recommended reading. Especially for the story of how they got the B-25 home. Walter Soplata died November 5, 2010 at the age of 87. His sons obituary to him on the EAA website (here) is also a must read.]

[Image Credit: Jim Harley of Air & Space Magazine]

  • The Devastator had 70% operational losses. Only 39 out of 130 survived to even be scrapped.

    There used to be a guy in Calhoun, GA that had several early Cold Ware era warbirds parked in a grass field/landing strip. It was visible from I-75.

    Looks like only3 are left: http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&am

    • Steve Tournay

      The I-75 display was at Mercer Air Field; at one time there were five or six jets, a Mace missile, an H-34 helo and a Convair T-29 there, and on one visit in 1981 I saw pristine Beech Bonanza and Piper Cub light planes in a hangar, and an immaculate bare-metal C-47 flew in and landed just ahead of a rainstorm. Neat place. Sadly it's all gone now except for a few bits and pieces…

  • Number_Six

    Please take the time to read the article by Soplata's son. It's simply an amazing story. Also this: "The F-82E Twin Mustang is being restored to airworthiness in Minnesota". !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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