- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

KINDRED, N.D. — Gerald Beck likes to say that he and his buddy, Bob Odegaard, are “just a couple of worn-out crop-dusters.” But to fans of military aviation, the two men are rescuing history — one wing, nose and tail at a time.

Mr. Beck and Mr. Odegaard count themselves among a handful of people in the world who do complete restoration of World War II military fighter planes, known as warbirds. They’ve repaired old planes, made new parts where none existed and created museum exhibits and million-dollar collectors’ items. Between them, they’ve restored about two dozen planes, often taking years to complete them, and they’ve even made the old planes fly again.

“I’m amazed at these guys’ ability to build these things from scratch,” said Edward Giller, an 85-year-old retired Air Force general who flew fighter planes in Europe as commanding officer of the 55th Fighter Group in England.

Gen. Giller named all eight planes he flew during the war for his wife. Where other planes sported pictures of scantily clad women, Gen. Giller’s had nothing but “Millie G” scrawled on the nose. Mr. Odegaard is now building a ninth “Millie G,” using parts from an original P-51 that Gen. Giller flew.

“I’m pleased, proud and happy,” Gen. Giller said. “It’s better and more thrilling to have them flying than sitting on a pole in a museum somewhere.”

The newest “Millie G” will duplicate the originals down to the last detail, including Mrs. Giller’s name on the nose.

“Of course I’m pleased, although I’ve never had much say in it,” she said from her Durango, Colo., home.

The restored model will also use the original color scheme. While most warplanes were dully painted or camouflaged, Gen. Giller’s unit flew green planes trimmed in red and yellow, with a prancing horse on the tail, thanks to a Walt Disney artist who served with the unit.

But the plane has no armaments. “No one is shooting at them now,” Mr. Odegaard said.

Dick Phillips, a warbird historian in Minnesota, said airworthy warbirds are important pieces of history.

“The youth of today don’t know beans about World War II,” Mr. Phillips said. “By having these airplanes around and flying them, it draws a certain amount of interest in the importance of that war.”

Mr. Beck, 54, and Mr. Odegaard, 57, met about 30 years ago while skydiving. Mr. Odegaard ran a crop-spraying business, and helped Mr. Beck get into it.

“I got him back,” Mr. Beck said. “I got him into warbirds.”

Mr. Beck’s first warbird was a Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber — the same model former President George Bush flew in World War II — that he began restoring in the 1980s in his spare time.

The airplane was missing bomb-bay doors, and Mr. Beck couldn’t find replacement parts.

“I decided we’d have to rebuild them,” Mr. Beck said.

Word spread of his work, and orders for parts for other vintage planes started coming in. These days, Mr. Beck’s company, Tri-State Aviation in Wahpeton, which employs about a dozen people, specializes in warbird fuselages. Mr. Odegaard and his crew at Odegaard Aviation, about 40 miles away in Kindred, concentrate mainly on building wings. The men build airplanes collaboratively and on their own.

Mr. Beck recently completed a P-51 that took more than 12 years to finish. The airplane’s Canadian owner scrounged the world for parts. Some pieces came from a plane that had been at the bottom of a lake in Uruguay.

Mr. Odegaard spent four years and thousands of dollars restoring a derelict Super Corsair that he found in a Kansas barn where it had been stored for years.

The Super Corsair was designed to intercept Japanese kamikaze fighters before they started their dive, but the war ended before they could be put into service, and only a dozen were ever made. But with a top speed of 450 mph, the Corsair was capable of outclimbing early jets. Some of the planes — including the one Mr. Odegaard restored — were used in air races.

“I was the seventh guy who tried to rebuild it,” Mr. Odegaard said. In 1999, 50 years after the airplane last flew, Mr. Odegaard won the Rolls Royce award in Reno, Nev., for excellence in aircraft restoration.

Just three Corsairs are known to exist today. Mr. Odegaard’s working on one of them in addition to the one he finished already.

Not to be outdone, Mr. Beck is nearing completion on a Japanese Zero, a carrier-based fighter that is nearly as rare as the Super Corsair.

Most of the Zeros were used on suicide missions against Allied warships.

“It’s one of only five Zeros in the world capable of flight,” Mr. Beck said.

The Zero was found in the Solomon Islands. Mr. Beck and his crew have spent about four years restoring it. “It wouldn’t surprise me if it ended up in Japan,” Mr. Beck said.

Mr. Phillips said about 13,000 P-51s were built in factories in Texas and California. After the war, they could be had for as little as $10,000. Many were scrapped. Today, seven-figure price tags are the norm. Mr. Beck’s Zero could bring $2 million; the asking price for Mr. Odegaard’s Millie G is $1.5 million.

Four of Mr. Beck and Mr. Odegaard’s restored warbirds are on display at the Fargo Air Museum. Jim Buzick, a museum volunteer, says the duo’s airplanes are among the museum’s most popular exhibits.

Mr. Buzick flew 30 missions over Europe in World War II as a crew member of a B-24 bomber. P-51 Mustang fighters often flew alongside them for protection against the German Luftwaffe, escorting the bombers deep into enemy territory and home again.

Standing near a P-51 that Mr. Odegaard restored with parts from 20 different fighters, Mr. Buzick said, “This is the airplane that is responsible for saving my life. It looks just as good as it looked 60 years ago.”

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