AirCorps Aviation is a Bemidji-based, globally recognized team rebuilding historic fighters and other WWII-era aircraft.
By Patrick C. Miller
In a hangar at the Bemidji Regional Airport in Minnesota, two gleaming examples of America’s World War II air power legacy are undergoing annual maintenance. There’s a rare Red Tail P-51C Mustang flown by the Commemorative Air Force of Texas to honor the Tuskegee Airmen, a fighter squadron of black pilots who made history by proving themselves in combat during the days when segregation was a common practice in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Next to it is “Sierra Sue II,” a P-51D Mustang operated through Wings of the North in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. It’s one of the few remaining flying Mustangs that saw combat during the war. The plane looks just as it did in the spring of 1945 when based at an American airfield in Belgium. Boasting high speed, great maneuverability and exceptionally long range, the sleek Mustang—sometimes referred to as “the Cadillac of the sky”—is best known for the critical role it played in gaining air superiority over the skies of Germany and Japan in World War II. Designed and built by North American Aviation, the P-51 was the pinnacle of piston-engine fighter development in the mid-1940s.
Mark Tisler, AirCorps Aviation co-owner and restoration expert, helped resurrect both planes and has probably returned more P-51s to the sky than anyone in the U.S. He’s met and visited with a steadily declining number of World War II pilots about their experiences. “They went out on a mission and some of their buddies didn’t come back that day,” he says. “And then they went out again the next day.
“This one particular Mustang pilot—Noble Peterson from New England, North Dakota—I asked him if he flew when he came back from the war,” Tisler continues. “He was like, ‘Nope.’ He was a rancher, which meant he could have used an airplane to fly around and check on his cattle. He said, ‘I knew that I’d never have as much fun flying airplanes as I did during the war—so I just quit.’ I guess the excitement wasn’t there; they’d already had theirs.”
The aircraft restored by AirCorps Aviation provide insight into what’s transformed the Bemidji-based company from an idea in the minds of its four founders—Erik Hokuf, Dan Matejcek, Eric Trueblood and Tisler—into one of the top aircraft restoration companies in the world. Since its launch in 2011, AirCorps Aviation has won four of the highly coveted Golden Wrench Awards and one Silver Wrench Award. The honors are presented each year during the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) AirVenture international air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. In July 2018, a P-51C named “Lope’s Hope 3rd,” restored by AirCorps Aviation, received EAA’s Grand Champion Golden Wrench Award at AirVenture.
“It’s painted to honor American World War II pilot, Don Lopez, who went on to become the chief historical architect for the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.,” Trueblood says. “This airplane was the first airplane that we ever really had the opportunity to go to the level we knew was possible in terms of restoration. It’s easily the most historically accurate P-51 flying in the world today.”
Sweating the details
Trueblood, a Minot native, a resident of Grand Forks and a 2006 University of North Dakota graduate, helped create the company with the mission of restoring historic warbirds to flying condition. Like a proud papa, he discusses the painstaking detail AirCorps Aviation employs to maintain the exactness of the P-51s in the hangar. This ranges from using historically accurate rubber stamps for some aircraft markings to repainting aircraft interiors to match the widely varying shades of zinc chromate primer.
It doesn’t take long to understand that Trueblood would rather talk about the airplanes and the people who built, flew and maintained them than he would about himself. “Our motivation is really to set the standards and raise the bar in terms of authenticity and accuracy,” he explains. “Often times, the guy sitting in the pilot’s seat gets all the recognition. We forget the fact that there were hundreds of thousands of people who formed the arsenal of democracy at home who assembled the airplanes. They left places like Rugby and Grafton in North Dakota to travel out to do whatever they could do to spur the war effort on the home front. It was a remarkable period of time.”
Suspended from the hangar’s ceiling while undergoing restoration for Wings of the North is the fuselage of a vintage aircraft in civilian colors that’s clearly seen better days. Asked why an aircraft that appears out of place is in the hangar, Trueblood quickly switches gears to discuss the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and the plane’s origins. During World War II, the aircraft was known as the “Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan,” and was flown by women pilots before being converted post-war to civil use.
“This airplane is not a heavily sought-after airframe that gets a lot attention from the air show crowd,” Trueblood admits. “But it has an important role in our national history by being able to effectively tell the story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots and their role. There were about 1,100 of them who flew to help train bombardiers, navigators and gunners; they towed targets; they ferried airplanes hundreds of thousands of miles. They filled a vital role during World War II in piloting aircraft, flying every American aircraft operated during the war. That’s why I feel airplanes like this end up here,” Trueblood relates. “It’s because there’s a story that needs to be told along with the restorations.”
Telling those stories and preserving history is what AirCorps Aviation does best. Sometimes the stories have endings, and other times they leave unanswered questions. For example, in 2017, the inscription “Eva & Edith” was discovered written in grease pencil inside the wing of a P-47D Thunderbolt being restored by the company. A blog on the AirCorps Aviation website resulted in the story being picked up by the national news media. Were Eva and Edith real-life Rosie the Riveters who helped build Thunderbolts in Evansville, Indiana? The question was never fully answered, but the signatures were recorded for posterity and preserved inside the plane’s wing.
In 2012, AirCorps Aviation became involved in the search for Loren Hintz, a P-47 pilot from Iowa whose plane was shot down over Italy during the closing days of the war. Although some of Hintz’s remains were recovered and buried in an American military cemetery in Italy, his family never knew the full story of his last mission. In 2000, his grandson, Hans Wronka, began the process of researching his grandfather’s final fate. On July 23, 2016, members of the Hintz family, Trueblood and a team of aviation historians and archeologists gathered near Bologna, Italy, at the site where the Thunderbolt was thought to have crashed. Trueblood identified parts of the aircraft excavated from 16 feet beneath a farm field—including its massive radial engine and machine guns—as coming from the plane Hintz flew. Also discovered were the pilot’s dog tags and more of his remains, which will be interred at the American cemetery in Florence on Nov. 16.
“That moment will forever be forged in my mind when a gentleman—I believe he was a Swiss dentist who has a background in archeology—found the dog tags,” Trueblood recalls. “He didn’t speak English, but I saw his exuberance at the moment he pushed that dirt off the dog tag, raised it up in the air and uttered words that got everybody excited. I’ll always remember him in a bear-hug embrace with Steve, the grandson of Loren Hintz.”
AirCorps Aviation has come a long way since starting out as four guys who moved from place to place to restore aircraft. Now with a hangar at the Bemidji airport and a larger facility in the town’s industrial park, the company employs 35 people. It’s also engaged in aircraft maintenance, parts fabrication, the reverse-engineering of legacy aircraft parts, aviation art and producing authentic aircraft markings. Trueblood is especially proud of the AirCorps Library which includes tens of thousands of digitized manuals and documents related to World War II aircraft. They’re available as an online subscription for $50 a year or $5 a month.
Some question whether warbirds should be flown, suggesting that the proper place for such historical artifacts is in a museum. But to Trueblood, it’s not even an issue. “To continue to honor the people who built the aircraft, maintained them and crewed them, you don’t carry on that love or that passion for World War II aviation if you can’t fly the planes. You can’t inspire those kids standing by an airport fence at an air show without the airplanes running and flying.”
When it comes to inspiring people to learn more about history and honor the sacrifices of World War II veterans, it’s mission accomplished for AirCorps Aviation. G
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PHOTOS BY: Various photographers
From Issue 2, 2019