The thunderous roar of a P-51 Mustang engine falls silent as Kermit Weeks, 59, climbs from the cockpit of his World War II fighter following a midday flight in the sky above central Florida.
Preserving Vintage Aircraft
Americana, History, Odd Collections, People, This Week in History, TraditionsBy Kimberly Button on November 7, 2011
“Somebody’s got to do it!” says Weeks, smiling and shrugging as he steps onto the aircraft’s polished wing, eliciting appreciative chuckles from a small crowd gathered on the Fantasy of Flight runway in Polk City, Fla. (pop. 1,562).
As the owner of the world’s largest private collection of vintage aircraft, Weeks shares his passion with other aerial enthusiasts at the aviation theme park where he displays dozens of the 160 flying machines he’s bought and restored during the last three decades.
From a 1914 Morane-Brock monoplane to a 1950s Soviet MiG-15, his collection includes aircraft from the advent of flight to the Korean War—a period in aviation history that Weeks says tells “a great story about the human experience.”
But unlike most vintage airplanes viewed by the public, Weeks’ flying machines aren’t retired to a static display in a climate-controlled environment. “It’s like the Smithsonian [Institution] on steroids because we’re flying stuff,” says Weeks, who pilots a different plane almost every day at Fantasy of Flight.
Weeks’ aerial assortment rivals exhibits in large aviation museums, according to Ron Kaplan, former executive director of the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio.
“Some of these rare birds would have been lost to time and neglect, or at least somewhere covered in dust, if Kermit didn’t have the wherewithal to collect them,” says Kaplan, 52. “Kermit’s quest could be considered over-the-top eclectic if it wasn’t also his goal to preserve and share them publicly.”
Inspired by the 1966 hit song “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” Weeks’ interest in aviation began as a young teen in Miami, Fla., where he read about World War I aces and began operating radio-controlled model airplanes. A local airline pilot took the youngster under his wing while building a two-seat biplane in his garage, prompting Weeks to buy a $40 set of plans to build his own full-size model of a German World War I fighter. At 16, he began flying lessons and soloed soon after.
A member of his high school gymnastics team, he quickly discovered aeronautical aerobatics. “Since I was so used to flipping around in the gym, when I got in the airplane I just sort of gravitated toward flipping around in airplanes,” Weeks says.
At age 24, Weeks made the U.S. Aerobatic Team in a second homebuilt craft and competed from 1977 to 1992, winning 20 world-level medals. During that time, he began collecting vintage aircraft beginning with an AT-6 Texan military trainer so he one day could pilot a P-51 Mustang, which he calls “the coolest of the World War II airplanes.” Today, his collection includes three P-51 Mustangs.
Weeks’ hobby requires a lot of space-and money. Royalties from an oil discovery charted by his grandfather, a petroleum geologist, allowed Weeks to expand his collection and build his own hangar at Miami’s Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport. He put his machines on public display in 1985 through a nonprofit museum but, when Hurricane Andrew damaged all of his planes in 1992, he shifted operations to Polk City, where Weeks had begun to acquire acreage.
The new site offers room to expand and features a 5,000-foot runway needed to launch and land his B-17 and B-25 bombers. In 1995, he opened Fantasy of Flight, featuring daily aerial demonstrations, airplane restoration tours and historical interactive exhibits. While he charges admission to defray operating costs, Weeks says his collection is about passion, not profit.
“I thought, let me just build my dream shop, my dream restoration and maintenance facility. Then let me adapt the attraction to it, and if it doesn’t work or it’s a stupid idea, then at least I’ve got a great place to work on my airplanes,” Weeks says.
For Weeks, vintage aircraft are a reminder that everyone is on a personal journey.
“I am not a collector of aviation history,” he says. “I don’t want to teach people how an airplane flies or how they’re built, but to use all of those elements to teach people about themselves.”