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Aircraft Collector Remembered for Heroic Quest to Save Historic Aircraft

By Wally Soplata, EAA 85601

Walter Soplata
Walter Soplata brought his children along to many of his aircraft retrieval missions. His son Wally was his most frequent and dedicated assistant.

Walter Soplata
Walter Soplata at his farm with an F2-G Corsair in the background.  All photos courtesy of the Soplata family

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December 9, 2010 —Carpenter Walter A. Soplata, known for his rare and unusual airplane collection, died November 5 at age 87. Walter was a one-of-a-kind individual in his heroic quest to save many historic aircraft. Though Walter’s formal flying training was limited to soloing a J-3 Cub, he nevertheless collected a variety of aircraft, including Corsairs, B-25s, F-82 Twin Mustangs, a P-51, and other piston warbirds, plus a number of early jets.

Severely lacking the financial means to build his airplane collection in a conventional manner, it was Dad’s incredible ability to improvise combined with a tireless work ethic that enabled him to accomplish what he did. As my sisters and I turned wrenches with him during most of our childhood, we saw how nothing could stop him from saving a stray-dog plane that needed a home. Doing everything on a shoestring budget, he hauled most planes using nothing more than a homemade trailer towed by a rusted-out Chevy Suburban. When I became old enough to drive, Dad prohibited me from driving his beloved airplane-hauling clunker. It was one rule he never had to worry about his son breaking! 

Rare among the rare, one of Dad’s Corsairs was the F2G, race No. 74, which took first place in Cleveland’s 1947 Thompson Trophy Race with Navy war hero Cook Cleland bending the throttle. Another stock FG-1D is possibly the only surviving Corsair to have flown in combat in WWII. As rare as F-82 Twin Mustangs are, Dad had two. His AD Skyraider is an X-prototype. His P2V is the only surviving ski-configured Neptune from a famed Navy expedition to explore Antarctica in the mid 1950s. The list goes on.

Despite Dad’s success in saving such aircraft, he endured decades of criticism for keeping his aircraft outdoors. People realize now that the planes would not even exist without his visionary efforts to save them from the fate of the scrap man’s torch. Dad, of course, wished to hangar his planes, but simply lacked the means.

Currently, Jerry Yagen has returned one of Dad’s B-25s, Wild Cargo, to the sky and it recently flew in a large formation of B-25s honoring the last surviving Doolittle Raiders. Like the B-25, two Corsairs and both Twin Mustangs are actively being restored for flight. Others will follow, but not entirely to Dad’s liking. While he was pleased to see the B-25 fly again, the loss of some very historic warbirds in flying accidents during the 1960s convinced him that his aircraft should remain on the ground. Ironically, as Dad became determined to keep his aircraft on the ground, I coincidentally developed the yearning to fly. As a young teen playing in old cockpits with angry wasps facilitating my pretend buzz-jobs, there was no way the inspiration to fly could be stopped from peeking its way through the cracks of Dad’s long-yellowed canopies.   

Dad’s dream of his most prized airplane going to a museum for permanent static display was almost realized. When persuaded by a local Cleveland-area museum to part with his F2G Corsair No. 74, he released the plane under the condition that it be put on display to commemorate Cleveland’s legendary air racing heritage. To Dad’s great chagrin, the museum has since sold the Corsair, and it is now being restored for flight.

All said, I will be forever thankful for the time I spent with my father and the enormous contributions he made to our aviation heritage. As his son I got to experience and do adventurous things that others in aviation can’t even begin to imagine. An “aviation father” to us all, we have indeed been very blessed.
 
Wally Soplata retired from the Air Force as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1996 after a 20-year career.  He served first as an enlisted radio tech, and later as an officer and pilot flying as an instructor pilot in the T-38, C-141, and T-37. Wally has been a CFI since 1981, and enjoys being a Young Eagles pilot (40 logged) with his clipped-wing J-3 Cub. He is a member of EAA Chapter 182 in Memphis, Tennessee. He currently flies for a major cargo air carrier.

Read this 1971 Sport Aviation article about Soplata’s “Museum in the Making”

Read Wally Soplata’s 2007 Air & Space article about The Soplata Airplane Sanctuary

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