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French Enthusiasts Restore Old Airplanes

  • George Putic

Vintage airplanes always attract a lot of attention and aviation enthusiasts spend much time, effort and money to restore them to flying condition. When they do not have original planes to restore, they build replicas which can be seen flying through the skies of period movies.

Since 1929, the Salis aircraft collection, at the La Ferté-Alais airfield about 40 kilometers south of Paris, has been a place where old planes - like this Boeing Stearman PT-17 - are restored to flying condition.

It was built in the 1940s for training U.S. military pilots. Out of more than 10,000 produced, only about 20 remain, flying mostly at airshows.

But the most prized possession of the collection is the Bleriot XI in which Louis Bleriot became the first pilot to fly across the English Channel in 1909.

Baptiste Salis, grandson of the man who started the collection, says flying it makes you feel the weight of the history.

“It is rather extraordinary to fly a machine that is 100 years old," he said. "Sometimes these machines have really high performance, on the contrary of what one might think; and you can feel these emotions coming from the history of these planes and the pilots that were flying them.”

Aircraft mechanic Xavier Gach said one of the greatest challenges is finding parts and material for restoration.

“If you want to make an identical old plane with original pieces - it will be complicated," he said. "You would need to invest in much more expensive canvases - you can still find them - but they will cost let's say 4-times more. Screws are not easy to find, engines - even more difficult; very often you have to make pieces yourself. It costs a lot of money.”

To make money for restoration, the workshop builds replicas of vintage aircraft for use in films and commercials, like this British World War I fighter plane SE5.

“For example, here [behind me] you have a star that was in film Ace of Aces with Jean-Paul Belmondo. It is a replica of SE5, it has its shape but it is not the real one,” said Salis.

The collection features several warplanes, including the World War I French fighter Spad XIII and World War II B-17 Flying Fortress.

Pilot Gaelle Damico, who owns a Belgian trainer Stampe SV.4, said flying vintage planes gives you a special feeling.

“I feel like being 50 years back in time and the sensation of having your head outside. That is superb,” said Gaelle Damico, a vintage aircraft pilot.

Every May the Salis collection organizes an air show and visitors can see many of the planes as they were meant to be seen - in flight.