Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Matt Quy wanted a certain biplane, a Boeing PT-13 Stearman, since he was about 10 years old and growing up beside a grass runway in Minnesota. His neighbor had a Stearman, and when he’d take off, he’d do it real low, sweeping over the Quy house like he was going to rake the tiles off the roof.
Young Matt Quy would draw pictures of himself flying the Stearman. He grew up to fly commercial jet liners and then, after 9/11, he joined the Air Force. He fell in love with a woman named Tina and married her. They decided to have a biplane together.
Alas for the young couple, there were difficulties. They couldn’t afford a biplane, not a flying one. But after much patience, the Quys, who live in the Las Vegas area, found a crashed Stearman on eBay. They brought the plane home and began to raise it from a wreck.
One day, the phone rang. Quy, 34, found out that this piece of his personal history was, well, a piece of history.
The Quys’ Stearman was originally a training plane for some of the most decorated and storied pilots of World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black fliers in the then-still-segregated Army Air Corps. In the face of an army that didn’t want them and such indignities as whites-only officers’ clubs, the Tuskegee Airmen went on to earn 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, one Legion of Merit, one Silver Star, 14 Bronze Stars, three Presidential Unit Citations and, most important, zero bombers lost to enemy fire.
The Air Force historian who had traced the plane’s serial number for Quy told him that his plane might be the only surviving Tuskegee trainer.
Well. That changes things a little, thought Quy, who had been toying with the idea of starting an acrobatic stunt ride business with the biplane. Can’t do that with a historical object.
And if you have a historical object, you might as well restore it. Painstakingly.
Here’s how much of a joint project the plane has been for the Quys: Tina sanded and varnished (three coats!) the plane’s 56 wooden wing ribs and two main spars. Matt and Tina worked on the plane 12 hours a day on Saturdays, 12 hours a day on Sundays, with much of the work done in a little Louisiana garage that could reach 105 degrees in the summer. They sent engine parts out to mechanics for rebuilding. They got paper back.
“You’d get these massive bills and you don’t even have an airplane to fly,” Matt remembers.
It took three years before the plane was ready to fly, restored to nearly its original condition and painted bright blue and yellow.
Quy named the plane the Spirit of Tuskegee.
He takes it to air shows. Whenever possible, he tries to take surviving Tuskegee airmen up and let them take the controls for a while, something he’s hoping to do a little bit this weekend at the 38th National Tuskegee Airmen convention (Thursday through Sunday at Palace Station).
Generally, Quy says, his priorities are to, first, tell the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, second, motivate youngsters to choose careers in the military or in aviation and, third, keep it flying.
Keeping it flying is an ongoing and expensive project. For every hour he spends flying the plane, Quy tries to set aside $25 for maintenance and restoration (this is on top of the $56 in aviation fuel and the quart of oil the plane burns every hour). But the regular work is something of a relief, Quy says — a release from the stress of his job and a journey back in time to when flying didn’t involve the computers he hates so.
Quy says he has never added up all the bills and receipts. How much is not a question he particularly wants to know the answer to. “A lot” will do.
Recently, he got a call from Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. Museum officials agreed with him that the Spirit of Tuskegee is a national treasure and wondered if he might consider donating it to the museum in a few years.
It’s an interesting question, Quy says. He’s always thought of the plane as a living museum, with “the deep guttural sound of the engine and the staccato vibration of the propeller so much more powerful than anything hanging from the ceiling.”
“But they say so many million people will see it. And, you know, it could be there a couple of hundred years after I’m gone.”
Which is a nice thought, Quy says.
But maybe not just yet.