Succeeding in a niche market only works if you’re at the top of your game and that certainly is the case with Chuck Wahl and his crew at Vultures Row Aviation.
Specializing in the restoration of World War II U.S. Navy tailhook war birds, Wahl and his team work on the rarest of rare planes, returning them to better than original condition.
Located in a large hangar at the Cameron Airpark, Wahl started Vultures Row Aviation in 2010 after spending more than 25 years being an air traffic controller. He is also a pilot. What got him hooked into the business, so to speak, was restoring a North American T28 and then a North American SNJ-5C.
The latter, his personal plane, is very rare because of its tailhook, with only three original ones like it in the world. A double prize winner, in 2009 it won the National Aviation Heritage Grand Champion Trophy in Reno and in 2010 the AirVenture Grand Champion Warbird Post WWII. Very few planes have won both of those awards, said Wahl.
Currently he and his crew are restoring a Curtiss SB2C-1A Helldiver and a Douglas SBD-4 Dauntless, both built in 1943. “In my opinion, the Dauntless was one of the coolest planes in WWII,” he said.
Almost extinct, the two planes are still around because they never left the United States. The Dauntless had a mishap in 1944 on the USS Sable in Lake Michigan. It suffered an engine failure on take off, splashed over the end of the ship and sank to 310 feet, where it remained until 1994 when the Naval Museum in Pensacola, Fla., recovered the plane and later sold it. It eventually ended up in the hands of a private collector, Jim Slattery, who has his own private museum of WWII aircraft in San Diego. Wahl estimates it will take him about 4 1/2 years or about 30,000 man hours to restore it.
The Curtiss SB2C-1A Helldiver under restoration is also owned by Slattery. “There’s only one Helldiver flyable in the world and there will probably never be more than three or four,” Wahl said. This one is the earliest known flying Helldiver. It went to the Navy in 1943 but had a mishap in 1945. The Navy then elected to use it as fire training, meaning they lit it on fire and put it out. Then they put it on a barge with two other Helldivers, some Wildcats and Corsairs, and dumped them in Lake Washington where they sank to 150 feet.
“In 1984 two college kids found and recovered them,” Wahl said. “But as soon as they did, the Navy showed up from Pensacola and said, ‘Those are our planes. We’re taking them.’ But the kids said, ‘I don’t think so.’ The military police ended up confiscating the planes so the two kids filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government. Long story short, a year later a federal judge said, ‘OK, Navy, you wrecked them, you burned them, you dumped them, you abandoned them and you didn’t even know where they were and weren’t looking for them.’ He then awarded the planes to the two kids and told the Navy to pay all their legal fees and to go away. And the Navy’s been bitter about it ever since.”
Slattery eventually bought the burned Helldiver and hired Wahl to restore it, which he estimates will take five and a half years and some 50,000 man hours. As to what it will be worth when finished, Wahl didn’t want to hazard a guess, saying the planes are priceless because of their rarity.
Both are technically called dive bombers, he said, with the Helldiver capable of carrying a 2,000-pound torpedo or three 500-pound bombs, and the Dauntless carrying a smaller load. Each plane held one pilot and one tail gunner. The Dauntless is primarily the plane that won the Battle of Midway. That’s its claim to fame. It’s a very historical plane, but quite rare and highly sought after, noted Wahl.
Museum quality but air worthy
Wahl said during the war they built these planes as fast as they could, anticipating they would only have a short life. “They expected them to be shot down. Most airplanes didn’t survive the war. But the ones that did survive, they only expected to survive a year. Few combat vets came back. Lots of pilots were shot down. Lots of planes were left overseas. Few made it back to the United States,” he said.
Wahl estimates there are only 20 or 30 Dauntless planes left of the original 7,000 built. The Pensacola Naval Air Museum has quite a number of them. But only three are air worthy. He estimated it cost about $120,000 to $180,000 to build a Douglas Dauntless and $180,000 to $200,000 to build a Helldiver. But once restored, their owners usually don’t sell them because they are priceless.
However, the restored planes are not empty hulks. “The planes we work on are museum quality but air worthy,” said Wahl’s wife, Carol. And checking their air worthiness is Chuck, who tests them before they are delivered to their owners. “They are designed to be flown regularly and not just sit in a museum,” said Chuck, who flies his at air events all the time.
However, these vintage planes do come with some limitations. They can only be flown during the day and in good weather and can’t be used for hire or for paying customers. They also have to fly with modern radios in them, although they are taken out during judging competitions.
“You take the modern radios out and they look 100 percent like a time capsule from WWII,” said Chuck.
Gunning for glory
Adding to the authenticity of these restored planes is the gunner ring. Able to rotate so the gunner could face forward during landing, it could rotate in other directions so the gunner could fire at will. The restored planes will eventually have their gunner ring back plus a replica gun and ammo.
“It looks real, you just can’t fire it or we’ll have ATF all over us,” laughed Chuck. “One guy wanted to do that with his. He has property in Minnesota, so the ATF said, you get one day to fire live ammo, the plane can’t be in the air, you have to build a bunker behind the airplane, and one of us has to be here. But he went through all the hassle just so he could fire the guns.”
Wahl said once the restorations of the Dauntless and Helldiver are complete, they will be entered into competitions with the two largest being the EAA AirVenture Convention at Oshkosh, Wis., and the National Aviation Heritage Invitational in Reno.
“Most major collectors are pilots. And guys with big dollars want history,” said Wahl. “They want to keep history and take them to air shows. To see what the greatest generation flew and how we won WWII.”
Wahl says his business is his way of helping to preserve aviation history, “because once these planes are gone, they are gone. They will never make them again, never fight World War II again. Everything is different now. There was such a drive during WWII to produce this kind of airplane and there will never be again. So it’s really historical aviation artifacts that we keep authentic and fly.”
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Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.