Review by Nicholas A. Veronico.
Most warbird enthusiasts will know the name Walter Soplata. He’s known for a secretive aircraft collection in the woods outside of Cleveland, Ohio, and not just any aircraft collection, but some of the rarest and most historic aircraft in certain aviation circles.
Nothing was for sale at Soplata’s place, but if you showed up at the property, you were more than likely to get a tour, rather than be chased away. Then again, when Soplata was acquiring his collection, most of it was considered junk and an eyesore where it lay. To many Soplata was removing a headache from their airport, so people were usually glad to see him. He was a bit unorthodox in his engineering when it came to disassembling aircraft and even further out there when it was time to transport the hulks back to his property.
The B-25 in the Backyard was written by Soplata’s son, Wally. It is an amusing tale of living with a father obsessed with aircraft and all that goes with them – engines, canopies, and a million other parts, new and old, that need saving. Wally was inducted into the family collection obsession at an early age, and his strong teenage back, willing to do whatever his father needed, was vital to the elder Soplata’s aircraft recovery endeavours.
What did they bring home? How about a couple of Corsairs – including Cook Cleland’s Race 74, the blue and white F2G in which he won the 1947 National Air Races in Cleveland, the Corsair Lucky Gallon, a pair of B-25 Mitchell bombers, an ex-NACA North American F-82E Twin Mustang, an XP-82 Twin Mustang, the Douglas XBT2D-1 Skyraider, a KC-97 Stratotanker, a TBM Avenger torpedo bomber, a P2V Neptune patrol bomber, most of a C-82 Packet, the nose section of B-52B 53-0394 Lucky Lady III that led Operation Power Flite (the circumnavigation of the globe with two other B-52s in January 1957), and lots of a Convair B-36H Peacemaker ten-engine bomber – just to mention a dozen or so of the aircraft in Soplata’s collection.
The trials and tribulations of working with his exacting, yet nutty-professor father, and his Rube Goldbergesque-style of engineering as applied to the physics of dismantling an aircraft, are amazing, funny and, in some instances, simply insane. Imagine towing a B-25J (44-30129 Wild Cargo) home using a makeshift trailer and a six-cylinder Chevy Suburban – all while dodging the police because the load is too wide at best and certainly unsafe. The true tale of moving the Vought F7U Cutlass more than 600 miles, from Boston to Cleveland, is stranger than fiction! Had there not been photos, the story simply could not be believed.
Young Wally Soplata had the dream his father did not – to fly. He spent the majority of his Air Force career instructing in T-37s, T-38s, and C-141s. Retiring from the Air Force at the rank of lieutenant colonel, Wally went on to fly with the airlines in the Airbus A300 and A310, the Boeing 727, 757, 767, 777, and the Douglas DC-10. He still flies and instructs, but now in various general aviation aircraft.
Retirement also gave Wally Soplata the opportunity to reveal what it was like to grow up in the Soplata household. It wasn’t easy.
The elder Soplata spent lavishly on his aircraft and aviation collection while barely providing for his wife and children. He also ruled the house with what could be perceived as an iron fist. He worked as a carpenter and was apparently a good one. Work was plentiful for the skilled carpenter and the opportunity for advancement in the trade was there, but Soplata never took it. He was self-conscious of the fact that his formal education stopped at the eighth grade and that he had a stutter. His education was cut-short during the depths of the Great Depression when it was more important to eat and contribute to the welfare of the family than attend school. Unfortunately, society in the late 1940s through the 1970s was very hard on people who stuttered.
Soplata’s mother-in-law, known to the kids as ‘Grandma Murray’, was always calling Walter on his spending and how he provided for her daughter and family. ‘To Grandma Murray, my father was the odd, planes-on-the-brain son-in-law whose idea of providing for his family was to have two junk cars on cement blocks instead of just one.’ The long-running feud between the elder Soplata and Grandma Murray is a fun thread that runs throughout the book.
Walter Soplata’s dream was to present his aircraft collection in a museum, but unfortunately that never came to pass. After his death in 2010 at 87 years of age, his children began the task of liquidating his aircraft collection. The F2G racer was restored. Tom Reilly and his team returned the XP-82 to the air; today the only one of its type flying. Chuck Wahl has the FG-1A Lucky Gallon in the Vulture’s Row shop awaiting its turn for restoration, and Dave Hall and the crew at MotoArt have turned the skin of the former Soplata B-36 and B-52 into ‘Plane Tags’, enabling enthusiasts to own part of the Soplata Collection.
Reading The B-25 in the Backyard felt like one’s best friend had sat down and opened up about his family life, telling you the whole story – the good, the not so good, and the intimate details of a father and son relationship and their combined love affair with aviation.