Collecting war planes in memory of real heros

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

See this?” says Jim Cavanaugh, pointing at some circuitry. “Everything in here is original. Every wire, every connection, every little label you see here is exactly the way it was. All the machineguns are in it. If you had a flight suit on, you could plug it in and it would heat up your flight suit.”

We are standing in the bomb bay of a 1944 B-25 bomber, one of about three dozen vintage military aircraft he has collected and restored over the past 25 years. They are displayed, and sometimes flown, at the Cavanaugh Flight Museum, located in Addison, Texas, just outside Dallas.

“People ask me why I do this,” he says, leading me to the next plane in the hangar. “Well, what if someone had saved Sir Lancelot’s lance? What if someone had saved King Arthur’s sword? A hundred years from now, that’s what these aircraft will be like. The pilots who flew these planes were true-to-life heroes. If nobody saves them, they’ll be gone.”

Military aircraft may seem an odd passion for a man who has devoted his professional life to more down-to-earth concerns. Cavanaugh made his fortune by founding Jani-King International, the world’s largest commercial janitorial franchise company. But it turns out that flying is in his blood: His father was an aviation mechanic and served in the Air Force. “He took me to an air show when I was pretty young,” he recalls. “Soon I was making model planes and flying U-controls. And when I went to sleep, the dreams I had most often involved flying. I don’t remember any planes or aircraft – just flying.”

That obsession continued into Cavanaugh’s adulthood. He joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps in college but was told that his chances of flying a fighter were very slim unless he entered the Air Force Academy. So he settled for working his way through school at the University of Oklahoma, where he would often spend his lunch hour watching aircraft at a nearby airport. During his 20s, he was too busy expanding Jani-King to acquire an aircraft of his own. But he found time to attend air shows, where he got a feel for older aircraft – and a deep sense of appreciation for those who had flown them.

“You’ll go to a movie and see Sylvester Stallone playing a hero, but at the air shows I met real heroes,” he says. “These were guys who’d sit down at a table in the morning, maybe four of them, and they’d know that probably only two of them would come back from that day’s mission.

“You read about that kind of valour – the bravery, the things that the people who flew these planes faced – I mean, the business world involves some risk and some danger, but it is nothing compared to what those guys faced.”

These encounters led Cavanaugh to start his aircraft collection, beginning in 1980 when he spent $10,000 for a half-share of a 1939 Piper J-3 Cub. A few years later he and his father built an Aviat Pitts Special, and he was hooked. His deepening level of passion is evident in the escalating amounts he spent on the next few aircraft he acquired: $32,000 for a 1943 Fairchild PT-19, $60,000 for a 1944 Eastern TBM-3E (“and we had to put another $60,000 into it”, he says) and $650,000 for a 1944 North American P-51D Mustang.

“At that point, I started acquiring them fairly quickly,” he says. “My company was doing well, and that’s when I thought it would be nice to have a museum.” The facility opened in 1993 and has continued to grow along with Cavanaugh’s collection.

The aircraft values have grown as well. The P-51D Mustang, for example, is now worth $1.5m, more than twice what Cavanaugh originally paid for it – not that he is interested in selling. “Occasionally, off the cuff, someone will ask about acquiring one of them, but I think it’s gotten around the community that I don’t sell them,” he says. “You have to understand, these were not purchased as investments. I must have thought at some point that they’d increase in value, but I’m more into the heroics and the history.”

That history has led to some amazing storylines, most notably regarding that B-25 whose bomb bay we’d been standing in. Its nose was plain and undecorated when Cavanaugh acquired it in 1995, but he soon learnt that it used to feature a distinctive cheesecake illustration of a leggy redhead and the inscription “How ’Boot That!?” Through a series of fortuitous connections, the museum was able to locate Jack Kowalik, the artist who’d rendered the original painting in 1944 – by this time he was in his mid-70s – and arranged for him to re-create his design. The flashy painting is part of what makes the B-25 the museum’s star attraction.

It is not Cavanaugh’s favourite, though. Asked for his top choice, he cites the P-51D Mustang. “I like the whole history of that model,” he says. “It was designed and flown by North American in 120 days. It probably shortened the second world war by eight months, maybe a year. Want to check it out?”

The weather, alas, isn’t flight-friendly this day so we can’t go up for a ride, but I accept Cavanaugh’s invitation to climb into the Mustang’s cockpit, where I settle in and grab the stick. It all feels pretty cool, until I realise just how many dials and gauges are staring at me: manifold pressure, RPM, altitude, instantaneous vertical speed, coolant temperature, coolant door position, oxygen cylinder pressure, ad delirium. How did anyone keep track of all that – while facing anti-aircraft fire, no less?

“That’s the thing,” says Cavanaugh, as I climb back down. “Nowadays you press a button, your heat-seeking missile launches, and that’s that. There probably won’t be any more warfare where the pilot and his ability to use his aircraft determines the outcome.”

Maybe not. But thanks to his collection, the aircraft and pilots of the past will always get their due.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.