By S. Clayton Moore
Gordon Page is a little distracted as he talks up his new book, “Warbird Recovery.” He’s calling from EAA AirVenture 2005 to talk about his first venture into nonfiction.
“A pair of Mustangs is just beating up the pattern here!” he shouts. “The hair on the back of my neck stands up when I hear that sound.”
It’s the natural reaction from one of Colorado’s most enthusiastic aviators. As the past president of the Colorado Aviation Historical Society and one of the founders of the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame, he’s been one of the area’s biggest supporters of historic warbirds.
His passion for rare World War II aircraft has taken him all over the world through harrowing adventures that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cold War spy novel. Thankfully, Page has now documented his story in “Warbird Recovery,” a new book carrying the same name as his aviation organization and documenting his hunt for a rare German Messerschmitt Bf 109.
The tale emerged from Page’s rapturous interest in the rare airplanes rumored to exist in the rural areas of Siberia. The inspiration for the book, self-published through Iuniverse, came from the author’s family.
“My wife had encouraged me to keep a good journal while I was there,” Page explained. “She wanted me to write the book so that our two daughters would know someday what I went through to get that 109.”
The story begins with the book’s namesake, the Warbird Recovery organization formed by Page in 1993. He got a line on a group of Japanese Zeros and American fighter planes available in Siberia and in typically enthusiastic fashion, was soon on a plane to Russia.
Although told in Gordon’s easygoing voice, the palpable menace in post-Soviet Russia is obvious as Page’s story runs from a cold, rainy night in Moscow to a strange tugboat trip out to “Warbird Island,” where the ghosts of crashed warbirds still inhabit a former WWII airfield.
Along the way, Page and his companions, packing thousands of dollars in secreted money belts, encounter odd characters like their translator, Olga, whom they suspect of watching them for the KGB or “Snake,” a shady customs agent on the Russian side. Bribes were made for information leading to the cache of warbirds and his first trip to Russia was ultimately unsuccessful, despite several tense negotiations with their Russian contacts. There were even guns pointed at them at one point by local thugs looking for contraband to steal.
Page brought his own good guy to help him balance out the bad guys on his second trip in 1994. Dr. Mike Bertz, often seen roaring above Jefferson County Airport in his own P-51 Mustang, “Stang Evil” or his British Jet Provost, accompanied Page back to Russia. They went in search of a group of wrecked aircraft melted out of a lake and trucked to St. Petersburg. Page describes the ominous scene in his book as his Russian hosts give him just 10 minutes to examine the Messerschmitt and make a bid.
“I couldn’t decide if I was excited or not,” Page writes in “Warbird Recovery.” “It was definitely a Messerschmitt but I knew in my heart that it was going to take a lot of effort to get it in the air again. Peter grabbed my arm and pulled me over to the wing. He grinned widely as he once again brushed some snow off the tail to expose the German swastika. It was the real thing—and the tail was more or less complete. It was spooky knowing that the plane I was looking at had once fought for Hitler and might have killed people in the name of the Reich, but it was real history, and I knew that I was closer to closing a deal than we had ever been in Siberia.”
Today, the Messerschmitt and several other aircraft are under restoration at Warbird Recovery’s facilities in Broomfield, Colo. Page rushed the book into publication to support a potential “History Channel” documentary, and also to support his plans for the Spirit of Flight Center, a planned aviation museum to be located at Jefferson County Airport.
“There’s a reason it’s called the Spirit of Flight Center,” Page explained. “If it’s in you, you always look up when those planes pass overhead. It will be very accessible. I want people to be able to touch the bullet holes and lay their hands on the props. I want people to know the story of these aircraft.”
Page hopes to have a lease completed for land at the airport within the next month or so in order to break ground this fall. The museum will start with a 30,000-square-foot facility showcasing restored aircraft, starting with a P-51 Mustang that Page and his team recently recovered from the Dominican Republic. Acquired in 2003, P-51D Mustang 44-63791 will be rebuilt to flying condition as a 352nd Fighter Group “Blue Noser” carrying the nose art “Three of Hearts.” The Warbird Recovery group is also planning another major recovery effort in Asia for what Page will only describe as “very rare warbirds.”
In the meantime, Page is supporting the book with guest appearances at air shows and interviews with major media outlets. Several major names have already given their endorsements to his tale such as Col. William “Bill” Bower, a Doolittle Raider pilot, who wrote, “One needn’t have a passion for aviation before sitting down to read ‘Warbird Recovery’ but one will find it hard not to have such a passion once this ride is over.”
Michael Dorn, of “Star Trek” fame, who’s a jet pilot himself, says he’s met his match.
“All these years, I thought I was crazy for warbirds,” he said. “‘Warbird Recovery’ is a compelling, exciting page-turner that should be read by all who have dreamed or are dreaming about recovering pieces of history.”
Page’s own favorite quote in the book is not from the famous names that have read it but instead from his own hero, Charles Lindbergh, who said, “What kind of man would live where there is no daring? I don’t believe in taking foolish chances, but nothing can be accomplished without taking any chance at all.”
It well captures the spirit with which the pilot and maturing historian has sent his very personal story out into the world.
“My goal is to share a true story and let people know what happened,” Page said. “I wrote the story in a way that I felt my girls would enjoy reading. You don’t have to be an aviator to enjoy reading this book and I hope people can see that I wrote it from the heart.”
However, he does carry a word of caution for anyone hoping to recreate his incredible achievement.
“Don’t try this at home,” laughs the man who has faced down Russian machine guns to accomplish his dream. “Trust me. It’s an easy read with a lot of uneasy moments.”
More information on Warbird Recovery’s restoration efforts is available at [http://www.warbirdrecovery.com], where the book is also available for sale. “Warbird Recovery” can also be found at Iuniverse.com, Amazon.com, Borders and Barnes & Noble. Information about the developing Spirit of Flight Center is available at [http://www.spiritofflight.com].