View Full Version : Fighter Factory Has a New Home

06-05-2006, 04:08 PM

Had a article in my local paper, also info on their web site. A private owner with many nice planes has a new airfield and runway.

VIRGINIA BEACH - A checkerboard water tower looms over the tree line where it's least expected, amid some low-slung ranchers and farm fields in southern Virginia Beach.

It stands next to a new aircraft hangar, another unlikely sight in a rural community where flying has been limited to an occasional crop duster or a humble Cessna hauling banners to the Oceanfront.

Not any more, not since the fighters came to roost.
Today, the city's newest private airport opens its doors to hundreds of invited guests, who can gaze upon one of the nation's largest private collections of vintage fighter planes.

Carefully restored and lovingly maintained, the 19 airworthy relics include some of the country's most storied nameplates: the fearsome North American P-51D Mustang and a PBY-5A Catalina, a search and rescue seaplane that plucked countless airmen from the water during World War II.

There is a Navy FG-1D Corsair, whose inverted gull wings - a design feature needed to accommodate the huge propeller - were once a familiar sight over Hampton Roads. It was the first U.S. warplane to break the 400-mile-per-hour barrier......

The collection belongs to Gerald Yagen, who owns Aviation Institute of Maintenance, a nationwide chain of vocational schools that teach people how to become aircraft mechanics. It's part of a group of schools that offer training in medical, legal and computer skills and operates as Tidewater Tech, Beta Tech and Polytechnic Trades of America.

Unskilled in airplane mechanics, Yagen says he is merely a businessman who happens to have a passion for flying and collecting unusual planes. It's no ordinary collection that contains an old German buzz bomb - the engine works but it's not armed - to early Russian and Japanese war birds.

His desire to fly began simply enough on a trip to the Norfolk airport.

Yagen said he went there to send a package via airmail to Europe when he spotted an airplane that tickled his fancy. He suddenly thought he would like to fly one, he said, and soon bought his first plane - and hired an instructor to teach him to fly it.

From there, his interest became feverish.

"Whenever I heard an airplane, I would look up," he said. The more he learned about planes, the more he wanted to own them, and the more passionate he became.

There were boyhood antecedents. While growing up in South Norfolk, he collected stamps, then coins, then comic books. He attended Oscar Smith High School and later Frederick Military Academy, which eventually became the Portsmouth campus of Tidewater Community College.

As a young man in the late 1970s, his eyes turned to Ferraris, the high-octane Italian sports cars that he traded with other collectors. It was only natural that airplanes came next.

"I went through planes like cars," he said. "It was exciting to fly them, and it was a challenge to fly to different destinations."......

He's had close calls as well.

Once, while flying in his 1942 Navy Stearman with his wife over Columbia, S.C., the plane's engine quit and he landed on a local highway.

"You learn about life from that," he said.

Long held in cramped hangars in Suffolk, Yagen's airplane collection has been moved to an Art Deco building along Princess Anne Road where a grassy airstrip and a faded windsock once marked the spot for local crop dusters to touch down.

Not all of his airplanes fly. He has 20 that are in various stages of restoration, with some facing an uncertain future because finding parts for vintage airplanes is not easy, especially for planes found as wrecks in jungles or left abandoned for 50 years in an open field.

A worldwide market exists for various kinds of altimeters, fuel gauges, compasses, engines, propellers - just about any part - that keep restorers such as Yagen and his mechanics on the hunt. Restorations are often so complete that many planes emerge as good as the day they were made.....

"A lot of people ask me if I'm going to pave the runway in Virginia Beach," Yagen said. "Absolutely not. These airplanes landed on grass when they were built and were intended for grass landings. Others were made for carrier landings."

The pilots are volunteers, and they seem to jump at the chance to get airborne.

"I feel so fortunate flying for this guy," said Lou Radwanick, a Virginia Beach resident who last week delivered to the new airfield a deHavilland Tiger Moth, a British biplane.

Flying vintage airplanes can give pilots a heightened appreciation for history.

"I love to fly because it's a challenge," said Donald S. Anklin, the Fighter Factory's general manager. "But if it wasn't for our dads and our grandfathers, we'd all be speaking German right now. That's how I look at it."

Yagen is keenly aware of their significance. He said airplane historians sometimes question why he flies them at all when their numbers are so few. Why take the chance, they ask.

"I feel like I'm saving a little piece of history," he said. "But I think in my lifetime these planes will stop flying because they simply will become too rare and valuable."

Yagen bought the Virginia Beach airstrip in 2003 for about $1 million and quietly started courting local residents with Christmas cards and living room visits to explain his plans for the 102 acres.

"What appealed to me was the grassy strip and the conditional-use permit that allowed airplanes," he said.

The strip was used by Aerial Services, which flies banners to the Oceanfront. The company was displaced during construction, which included refurbishing the runway and extending it to about 5,000 feet from 3,000.

Ray Stevens, Aerial Service's owner, said he will keep four planes at the new field.

The airport will remain a private operation and the historical planes will be available primarily for air shows or special events, such as military flyovers during national holidays, Yagen said. Visitors, while not encouraged, can stop by the private facility, he said.

"I'm trying to be a good neighbor," Yagen said.

In a city with an uneasy relationship with modern fighter jets, Yagen has sought to assure his Pungo neighbors that his planes will not be an intrusion. His efforts appear to have worked.

"We think they're neat," said Rosie Curtiss, whose home sits on 3 acres across Princess Anne Road from the airstrip. "Every time we hear a plane coming in, we run out of the garage to see what's come in."

Her son, Tony Curtiss, said, "I look forward to the planes, more than I do a bunch of new houses."


06-05-2006, 07:15 PM
Live in Hampton Roads and have been out to the Fighter Factory on many occasions. The owner routinely flys the P-40 (done up as Tex Hill's AVG aircraft) to different airshows.

Last time I went the Russian birds were hangared by I know he has an I-16 and I-153 as well as a Po-2. Believe they were restoring a Yak-9 (or maybe a 3?).

I sat in the pit of the Corsair and Avenger and got to walk through the PBY. There is a Hurricane done up as Bader's aircraft and a Spit IX as well... They aren't (or weren't) in a museum type of factory...just aranged in hangar almost as if they were ready to roll out and take off...beauties all of them...

06-08-2006, 09:00 AM
http://forums.ubi.com/groupee_common/emoticons/icon_frown.gif I hate they moved from Suffolk....great bunch of guys and like Sensei said you could just walk up and check them out. I hope they do the same in Virgina Beach.