THE NEVER-ENDING SEARCH FOR AVIATION MEMORABILIA
The Never-Ending Search for Aviation Memorabilia
THERE HAS NEVER been a time when digging through the trash seeking treasures from the past hasn’t been popular. Collecting historical artifacts has been a human passion going back almost beyond historical record. In the past few decades, however, as aviation’s history became longer, more diverse, and heavily accented by worldwide conflicts, the amount and types of artifacts to be found expanded exponentially. The effort to locate those artifacts expanded at the same time, aided greatly by the arrival of the Web and social media. Now, an item found in 2nd Lt. Granddad’s closet can be researched, identified, and (if need be) offered for sale. This last has given birth to the online antique store. Entities that make an effort to find the most desirable (and, therefore, most salable) aviation items have reduced the number of forays necessary to the corner antique store and pawn shop.
The traditional method of ferreting out vintage goodies saw families, which often featured a disgruntled kid or two (“Mom, Dad, we’re not going ‘antiquing’ again, are we?”), traipsing around the country, from cubbyhole to junkshop to legitimate antique dealer. It took hours of driving and burrowing to come up with something that was worth putting over the mantel. Today, it is the rare antique store that doesn’t utilize eBay for moving just about everything. It’s unlikely anyone reading this hasn’t spent more than a fair share of his or her time roaming around the otherworldly expanse of eBay, so we don’t need to go deeply into that. In the Search window, you type some variation of “vintage aviation,” “vintage aircraft,” “pilot’s stuff,” “vintage aviation collectibles,” “wooden propeller,” or whatever combination of words that tumbles out of your mind. It is amazing what shows up there. Craigslist also works, but it is more of a garage-sale operation as it doesn’t have as agile a search engine.
The classic “bomber pilot” headgear, worn by USAAF pilots (and nonpilots) in Europe and the Pacific. Normally, this cap had a support wire around the inside top perimeter to maintain the cap’s round, regulation shape. Since bomber pilots wore headsets over their caps during flights, however, they would remove the wire stiffener to make headset wear more comfortable, causing the sides of the caps to become crushed. The crushed cap identified its wearer as an experienced pro. The “crushed cap” look quickly became popular with ground Army officers and general officers. (Photo courtesy of International Military Antiques)
The aviation-memorabilia specialty operations are entirely new experiences. One of life’s true pleasures used to be flipping through catalogs that are dedicated to those vintage, gotta-have necessities in which we have an interest. Today, the websites of the vintage/ memorabilia companies are essentially digital catalogs. Every narrowniche interest—from trains to antique buttons—has them. Companies such as Bell’s Aviation have amassed huge inventories of everything vintage and original, from flying helmets and flight suits to flying jackets, from different periods and different countries. Bell’s Aviation, for instance, works with museums and movie companies supplying them with a wide variation of materials.
Generalized vintage-collector companies, such as International Military Antiques, don’t specialize in aviation but simply include it in their offerings. These kinds of companies are aimed at the serious collector and usually specialize in one-of-a-kind (and, therefore, costly) items, such as painted flying jackets, Axis flying helmets, uniforms of all kinds, and museumquality items. Once in a while, something like a B-24 turret dome or Messerschmitt control stick shows up. That’s the fun of browsing those sites—you never know what might pop up.
Absolutely the least expensive way to find vintage aviation items is to go where the focus is not on aviation. (Read this month’s Tailview, where some amazing aviation finds are chronicled.) It seems as if there is a strong overlap of interests in which aviation is a collateral interest but something else is the central focus. It is not, for instance, unusual to find items like drop tanks, cockpit instruments, and even aircraft gunsights mixed in with the rusty Ford and Chevy parts at a large swap meet that is part of a major hot rod/custom meet. Invariably, the parts are not recognized for what they are, and they can be purchased for pennies on the dollar.
Firearm shows also seem to attract military or antique-aircraft items. Wooden propellers are fairly common, as are flying helmets and partial instrument panels. Quite often, it’s necessary to dig deep into displays because something like an experimental 30mm Japanese aerial cannon shell casing from a Model 22 Zero won’t be seen as anything of value.
Many aircraft fly-ins also have swap marts, and there, too, vintage-aircraft items are beginning to appear. Sometimes complete instrument panels from 1950s’ bombers or fighters will surface, along with a wide range of ejection seats (everyone needs at least one!). Military propeller blades are common, as are cryptic control boxes that once had an important use but are now simply interesting and cool. Periodically, the complete nose of something like a C-47 will be offered on a trailer. Recently, even the entire fuselage of a small twin-engine British military transport had a “For Sale” sign on it. It would make an “interesting” pool cabana.
Tragically, estate sales often reflect a lack of interest in the mementos a family member has brought back from his or her days in the service. As we’re losing our WW II heroes, more and more footlockers with all of their military belongings intact are showing up at curbside sales. Sad but worth watching for.
When purchasing vintage anything, it’s always important to get as much of the backstory on it as possible. If it is a personal item, who owned it and where did he or she serve? What is the identity of the item being sold? What type of aircraft did it come from and in what theater did it appear? The more provenance that can be determined for the piece in question not only adds interest but also increases its value. It’s always wise to assemble that information in a letter from the seller and attach it to the item so that its story, if any, is not lost.
The overall condition of the item obviously affects its value. Something like a rusty engine cylinder dug out of a crash site, however, might be better left in its as-found state rather than wire-brushing it down to the metal or, God help us, painting it! There are arguments on both sides of that question.
How does something like this B-24 top-turret Plexiglas survive 75 years? It’s just what you need to show off your matched pair of .50-caliber Brownings. (Photo courtesy of IMA)
The 1st Model Luftwaffe dagger dates to the 1930s and the earliest days of the new German air force. Daggers like these are sometimes found in forgotten trunks and out-of-the-way yard sales. Here, condition is everything. (Photo courtesy of IMA)
One of the most sought after but seldom found of all WW II goodies is the Norden bombsight. This one, dated 1943, is a USN Mark 15 Mod 7 sight manufactured by Lucas Harold. These show up in the oddest places: A number of new Nordens were recently found in their protective military metal cases, ganged together to form the floor of a work shed in California. (Photo courtesy of IMA)
How would you like to find this in the attic: an incredibly rare Messerschmitt Bf 109 control stick, complete with machine-gun flip-down trigger? This particular KG12A was produced by Original Bruhn. The KG12A didn’t have a so-called “B2 button,” which the later KG13 usually had (at the top left). There was only the top trigger and the push button. The KG12A was used in multiple airplanes, including the Me 109 E, Ju 87 B, and other aircraft. Don’t you wish this could talk! (Photo courtesy of IMA)
Above: The Sound Protective Helmet-4 (SPH-4) is a derivative of the U.S. Navy SPH-3 and was used by the U.S. Army since 1970. The helmets show up occasionally but seldom with their carrying bag and protective cover. (Photo courtesy of IMA)
Covered with reflective tape and sporting a Tomcat outline and a unit insignia on the back, a 1980s’ HGU33/P shows you don’t have to go back to WW II for memorabilia. These show up at garage and estate sales more often than older items. (Photo courtesy of IMA)
Above: The USAAF A-11 helmet is seldom found in undamaged condition or with the headphones still installed.
Below: The variety of WW II flying helmets is almost unlimited, but don’t assume because it’s old, it’s worth a lot. Shop around. (Photos courtesy of bellsaviation.com)
Cigarette lighters and aviation seem to go together. Lighters from Vietnam, like the top two, surface in swap marts, on eBay, in pawn shops, and everywhere neat stuff is sold. But the bottom one is a “trench art” lighter made at the front during WW I (ca. 1916); those lighters are seldom seen. (Photos courtesy of IMA)