Sunday, May 12, 2013

Ontario, Oregon: Warbirds to find new homes -- Roger Smith recounts fond memories of Merle Maine’s warbirds

ONTARIO, OREGON — They have been a fixture at Ontario Municipal Airport for a number of years, and at the Ontario Air Faire, but with the passing of Merle Maine in March, at the age of 81, his “Warbirds” are now being dispersed to museums, collectors and others, and their presence at Ontario is now short-term.

“He had quite a collection,” said longtime friend Roger Smith. “It was a big part of the Air Faire,” Smith said, adding that Maine always had a crew out before the fair to wash the planes.

“We were always looking for planes,” said Smith, who often flew with Maine.

One of Maine’s favorite planes was the Tigercat, Smith said, which was in pieces when the two picked it up in California and it had no engines or propellers. When Maine had the plane all put together in four years, it was like new, Smith said, and is worth $1.5 million to $2.5 million.

Maine brought in his first plane, a T-28, in the 1970s. He started buying jets in 1995 and eventually had 14 different models, including planes built in Australia, three Russian-built MiGs and nine U.S.-built planes. Ironically, a prohibition on buying U.S. military planes kept Maine from buying U.S. military planes directly, but he found others ways to obtain them.

He bought A-4s Skyhawks from the Thailand Air Force and another plane that had been surplus by its builder, General Dynamics, and was never owned by the government.

Like the Tigercat, most of those planes were rebuilt from parts that Maine was able to obtain. Smith said Maine had a hangar full of airplane parts.

Maine was a longtime Ontario businessman, operating Ontario Asphalt and Concrete, and acquiring Oregon Concrete, Blankinships Auto Parts and was the fixed-base operator at the airport for a time.

By previous arrangements, one the planes is now located at the Warhawk Museum in Nampa and another was donated to a museum in Rexberg, Smith said.

A third jet is to be trucked to a retired military pilot, who flew combat missions in the Korean War, and ended his flying career as a commercial airline pilot, flying 747s, Smith said. That person owns a private airport in New York.

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