Paul Allen's Flying Heritage Collection, at Everett's Paine Field, includes impeccably restored warbirds and other vintage aircraft. You can watch them fly, for free, on designated Saturdays through September.
The Hawker Hurricane dropped down out of a gunmetal sky above Everett’s Paine Field and dived straight for us — a woo-hooing, fist-pumping crowd out to watch this British World War II fighter being put through its paces. It buzzed the field at less than 100 feet, making sharp, snapping banks over our heads, so extreme that one little kid shouted to the sky, “That’s too much!”
No, it wasn’t. We wanted more, and so the pilot flew by sideways, so we could glimpse the bull’s-eye insignia on wings and tail, marks of the Royal Air Force.
Next up at this Free Fly Day, courtesy of Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection, was the Storch, German for “stork,” a stick-figured, awkward-looking craft, covered with black crosses and swastikas. It rolled to the runway and revved up, belching ominous blue smoke. The pilot tried a couple of times, but then brought it back in. I learned later there were mechanical problems and the pilot reckoned that, while he might have chanced it in a war, not that day. After all, this is one of the last flyable Storchs in the world.
These planes and others are found in a Paine Field hangar where the co-founder of Microsoft displays his collection of unique vintage aircraft, rare not just due to dwindling numbers, but also because they’re so thoroughly restored. “Exquisitely restored,” said curator and aviation historian Cory Graff. “We try to get them as close to the original condition as possible, right down to the decals.”
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That means most of Allen’s planes can fly, which you can watch — at no charge — during the museum’s Free Fly Days, offered periodically through September, including this Saturday. Crowds come to cheer.
Worth seeing up close
There’s an admission charge to get inside for a closer look at the full collection, but if you’re into historic planes, you’ll wander the hangar in a swoon.
I visited along with two friends, both former military, who were deeply absorbed, swapping aviation jargon with knowledgeable docents. I had no idea what they were talking about. But if you, like me, are not a warplane wonk, there’s still plenty to draw you in. Kids like it just for the cool factor. Who wouldn’t warm to a huge, honkin’ Hellcat with folding wings?
The collection is a testament to magnificent machinery and ingenious restoration, but what made it special for me was expert storytelling that put the aircraft in context — about an airplane’s often harrowing career; about the men and women who flew these planes, sometimes dying in them.
With aircraft from Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States, the collection illustrates breathtaking advancements. “Technology changed so rapidly,” Graff explained. “We went from fabric, wood and wire airplanes to jets in just 25 years.”
Using displays of text, photos, and documentary-style videos, the aircraft come alive in a particular time and place, often in violent World War II conflicts.
Buried on a beach
Take the Messerschmitt Bf 109, considered the first modern fighter and Germany’s World War II workhorse until the surrender. The one in this collection was flown by a German who did damage to the British until he took fire in July 1940. Pilot Eduard Hemmerling, 27 years old, tried to beat it back to France, but crashed and died before reaching the coast. End of story until 1988 when a man strolling a French beach saw metal poking out of the sand — the plane’s wing tip. And now here it is, revived and restored, with a big, black swastika on its tail. (See it fly on Aug. 6 and 20.)
There’s also the remarkable account of a Soviet biplane, the Polikarpov U-2/Po-2 — a crop duster by design, but employed to train pilots. The Soviet Union was the first country to allow women in combat when Stalin approved a plan to use a regiment of young women — some were teenagers — as bomber pilots against invading Germans.
In freezing weather and open cockpits, with a few bombs under each wing, the women flew their biplanes into the night. Approaching German camps, they came in low, engines idling, and released the bombs. Sometimes the women flung extra bombs out of the cockpit by hand. Unnerved German troops called them the Night Witches.
On the side of the museum’s Night Witch biplane is lettering that reads, in translation, “Revenge for Ducia,” one of the first Night Witches to be killed. (It flies Sept. 10.)
Many of the planes have “nose art” — pinups, cartoons, words. On the museum’s P-47D Thunderbolt is Tallahassee Lassie. “There were five of these planes built,” said Graff, “and with each replacement, she got more scantily clad until now she’s in underwear.” Bright red underwear, at that, and nylons. (See the plane fly Aug. 27.)
To keep up morale, military brass looked the other way but, finally, censors stepped in. One pilot confounded that effort: On one of the museum’s P-51D Mustangs, intruding into its yellow- and black-checkered nose, are the inoffensive words “Upupa Epops.” Seems the pilot had studied ornithology and this was the scientific term for the hoopoe, a bird known for agility in evading predators as well as spraying its own feces when threatened in the nest.
Graff thinks this plane captures the most visitor interest.
“The Mustang could do everything a Spitfire could do, but do it for eight hours. That meant it could escort vulnerable bomber squadrons. Mustangs are the ’57 Chevys of the fighters, a classic.” (It flies June 18 and July 16.)
Another popular plane is the Curtiss P-40C Tomahawk, the U.S. aircraft type that fought back at Pearl Harbor. The museum’s Tomahawk features shark-teeth nose art used by the famous Flying Tigers, but this plane never saw American action. “Our military wanted a more modern airplane,” Graff explained, “so we gave it to the Brits who gave it to the Russians. It was shot down and abandoned by the pilot, then found in 1991.”
And check it out: This plane is the world’s only P-40C in flying condition.
Saving works of art
“Paul Allen grew up enamored of airplanes,” said Graff. “He’s interested in collecting and preserving examples of different types of planes to show what they mean, and all the changes in technology.”
That’s appreciated by visitors like Bob Brodfuehrer, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Seattle. He especially admired the British Spitfire, and the German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 A-5, scheduled for its debut flight Saturday.
“Just the lines they have — simple, clean, classic. They’re elegant,” Brodfuehrer said. “And what’s amazing is that they’re flyable. The skill set and dedication it takes to maintain these planes in flying condition is impressive. It’s also a tribute to the strength of the airframes.”
Looking around at the perfectly restored aircraft that fill the hangar, he added, “These were the stars of their day. They’re really works of art.”
Freelance writer Connie McDougall lives in Seattle.