Rare ’31 Biplane Reunited with Original N-Number

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In 2022 the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society (HAPS), a Texas-based non-profit, acquired the Fleet from 92-year-old Jim Bumgarner.  HAPS is determined to restore and preserve this and other historic and vintage aircraft.  This Fleet Model 8 biplane was deregistered after the plane crashed in 1945.   Fifty years later in 1995 the aircraft was rebuilt and ready to fly again. But the original N Number, N70V, was no longer available.  The restoration crew would have to settle for something close.  The number N70CJ was assigned and has been on the plane for the last twenty-eight years.  

Now the original number is being reassigned courtesy of the Virginia-based aviation company, Dynamic Aviation.   “When the people at the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society contacted us and told us the story of this rare Fleet biplane, we were happy to help out,” said Michael Stoltzfus, President of Dynamic.  “Since we also restore aircraft, the importance of originality resonated with us.”

“The story of this Fleet and its resurrection is fascinating,” says HAPS President Gerald Oliver.  “It is the last flying Fleet Model 8 in the world.  The plane has an engaging story of brotherhood, love, war, tragedy, and resurrection.  We must keep it flying and tell this story to future generations.”

 At the time of the accident in 1945, the Fleet was owned and flown by a WWII bomber pilot.  Capt. Fred J. McConnell and his brothers Edwin and Thomas were made famous in 1943 when all three enlisted on the same day, obtained their wings the same day and shipped out to the same B-24 bomber squadron together.   Christened “Three of a Kind” by the Associated Press, the brothers were immortalized when their last name was enshrined as the namesake of a major Air Force facility…  McConnell Air Force Base in the boys’ hometown of Wichita.

Mrs. McConnell pins the wings on each of the boys at Luke AFB in 1943. Fred, Edwin and Thomas were assigned to fly the B-24 Liberator at the same Pacific air base on Guadalcanal.

 Tragically, Thomas the youngest at age 20, was killed on just his third mission.  Between them, the brothers flew 120 missions and were awarded multiple military medals, including several Distinguished Flying Crosses. Fred McConnell returned from the war as a flight instructor.   The Army Air Corp Capt. was flying his newly acquired Fleet biplane with his young wife, Blondie, to their new duty station in his home state of Kansas.   Flying low to avoid clouds, Capt. McConnell paid for this decision with his life.  The plane hit a high-tension wire and Fred was killed. Blondie survived, but was so distraught, she abandoned the parts where they lay in the field.    The tail became a windmill stand… the center section, a chicken coop. 

Thirty-seven years later, Jim Bumgarner heard about the parts laying in a farmer’s field in the next state over.  He drove his pickup from Missouri to the farmer in Kansas and made a deal.  Jim loaded up the parts in his pickup truck and headed back to his hanger next to Central Missouri State University where he taught at the A&P school.    Over the next thirteen years, he and a group of volunteers and A&P students worked to bring the plane back to life.  Jim flew the test flight in 1995, fifty years after the accident. But there was one thing he could not retrieve…  the original N Number.  The registration had lapsed in the ensuing years.   Over time it was assigned to another plane. 

 Now, thanks to the courtesy of Dynamic Aviation, the plane and N Number are being reunited.

Jim Bumgarner flying the Fleet at an Antique Airplane Association Fly-In. Photo via Historic Aircraft Preservation Society

The Historic Aircraft Preservation Society has established a fundraiser to help bring about the full restoration of the Fleet.   The “Great Mustang / Mustang Giveaway” is a sweepstakes with a 1965 Ford Mustang GT350 convertible and a flight in a WWII P-51 Mustang as the Grand Prize.  For more info on the Giveaway, and to see more pictures, click on the link below.

 

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