Trea­sure Hunt


Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Sam Tip­ton

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.

Dig­i­tal An­tiquing

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.

Un­ex­pected Sources

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.

Value-Added Fac­tors

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 bell­savi­a­

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)

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