Keep ’em Flying
Ed Russell, president of the Russell Aviation Group in Niagara Falls, Canada, owns the lethal-looking Messerschmitt Me-109E-4 that graces this issue’s cover. It’s one of only two Daimler Benz DB 601–equipped E models flying in the world today (the other is part of Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection). This particular fighter, Werke Nr. 3579, enjoys the added distinction of having been flown during the Battle of Britain by legendary Luftwaffe ace Hans-Joachim Marseille, the subject of Stephan Wilkinson’s cover story, “The Star of Africa” (P. 24). On September 2, 1940, Marseille claimed a Supermarine Spitfire in it over the Thames Estuary before he was forced to crash-land at Calais-Marck due to battle damage.
Some maintain that an airplane with such a unique historical provenance shouldn’t be flown, that the risks of its being lost are too great. Russell, who also owns a flyable Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane, admits, “My stomach is up in my mouth every time these take off, and I’m not happy until they land.” But he is quick to point out: “We don’t take any chances, and we pour the maintenance into them. We make sure we have a pilot who’s an expert and the conditions are good.” Asked why it’s important to maintain flying examples of these historic warbirds, Russell says, “From my personal point of view the more people who see these aircraft [flying], the more are instilled with their history.” In addition to showcasing his airplanes at the annual “Friendly Foes Above the Falls,” Russell takes them to other airshows each summer.
Russ Strine of the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum, who’s currently restoring a rare Northrop P-61B Black Widow to flying status (see “Restored,” P. 18), makes a similar argument. “We need to preserve that heritage—the sights and the sounds—and show that to future generations,” he says. Strine, who flew a restored B-25 for more than 25 years, will likely be the only one to pilot the Black Widow, and he maintains, “I think we can do it very safely, as safe as you can fly any other airplane.” While he knows that “finely preserved examples like what the Smithsonian has have their place,” he compares the difference between a museum aircraft and a flying warbird to the difference between a stuffed animal exhibit and a zoo display: “There’s nothing like seeing a living, breathing example.”
Anyone who’s heard the throaty growl of a Merlin-engine Mustang flying overhead or the deafening roar of a B-17’s four Wright Cyclones on the flight line would have to agree. There’s no doubt flying nearly 70-year-old airplanes is risky, but given proper precautions, it’s a risk worth taking. The world would be a much poorer place without them.
Originally published in the November 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.