There are certain things that define an aviation enthusiast. Passion for aviation. Desire to see aircraft preserved, not merely scrapped. Joy in collecting airplanes, whether it’s a collection of planes owned, planes flown or flown in, model airplanes, and other treasures. For MotoArt and its owner Dave Hall it is finding unique or iconic aircraft and preserving them forever with PlaneTags for others to collect and enjoy. This passion, bordering on obsession, drove Walter Soplata to make his dreams of preserving airplanes into reality.
Photo courtesy of the Soplata family, pictured is Walter Soplata and his wife Margaret, also an avid aviation enthusiast
Walter Soplata was born in 1923 to Czech immigrants, became a husband and the father of five, a long time union carpenter from 1947 to 1982, and was a lifelong aviation enthusiast and collector until his death in 2010. His love for airplanes began during the lean years of the Great Depression, when he saved any money he could get his hands on to build balsa model airplanes. Although a stutter would keep him from enlisting during World War II, he eventually found himself surrounded by the planes that fascinated him so much. For many years he worked in an Ohio scrapyard during off times in the late fall and winter, reducing surplus warplane engines into scrap. The thought of this machinery becoming extinct drove him to begin collecting airplanes.
Courtesy of the Soplata family
After WW2, Soplata purchased a large piece of land outside of Cleveland, OH and there began building what he called an airplane sanctuary. His first plane? An American Eagle biplane, followed by a Vultee BT-15 trainer. He eventually acquired close to 20 airplanes and about 50 different engines, always keeping his eye out for the rare or memorable.
Soplata amassed his collection the hard way. Without the help of a crane and other machinery, or even a heavy truck and trailer, he disassembled each plane himself, teaching his children how to use hand tools to take them apart and transport them back home.
“I just can’t believe it,” Dad grinned. “It’s like they made this plane to be hauled down the highway!” He showed me that all the major sections were bolted together in just the right places to allow damage-free disassembly. The forward fuselage could be unbolted in front of the wing, and the aft fuselage behind the wing. The outboard wings unbolted just beyond the engines, and even the engine nacelles unbolted slightly aft of the wing.
To Dad, the realization was like learning that the airplane would not be sacrificed to the gods. What he most hated about hauling airplanes was that some had to be cut to fit on the highway, and if a major section of the structure was cut, the airplane would be difficult to put back together and restore to flying condition.
- Wally Soplata, son of Walter Soplata, in The Soplata Airplane Sanctuary | Air & Space
Although Soplata stopped adding new planes sometime in the 1970’s, he continued to allow others who shared his fervor to tour his collection. On Sundays, visitors could view and even sit in the cockpit of some of the most incredible planes imaginable: BT-13, BT-15, T-50, T-28, SNJ Texan, FG-1D Corsair, F2G Corsair, TBM Avenger, AD Skyraider, F-82E Twin Mustang, P-80 Shooting Star, F-84F Thunderstreak, F-86L Sabre, F7U Cutlass, B-25J, Douglas B-26, and a P2V Neptune. Today, the sanctuary is closed to visitors.
"By the summer of 1967, Dad’s airplane collection was indeed impressive. Not only did he have a wide variety of vintage aircraft, but having some exceptionally rare and historic ones like his F-82 Twin Mustang, the partial XP-82 prototype, and rare F2G National Air Race champ Corsair that were putting him on the map. His many complete aircraft included a gaggle of trainers, fighters, and two bombers. For trainers he had two Vultee Valiants, one a BT-13 and the other a BT-15, a T-50 Bobcat and a T-28A Trojan. Fighters included the two complete Corsairs, the F-82 Twin Mustang, the F7U Cutlass, and P-80 Shooting Star. For bombers he had two B-25s. Additionally, though not complete, he had the P-51 Mustang, P-47 Thunderbolt fuselage, C-82 Packet fuselage, XP-82 Twin Mustang left fuselage, another Corsair fuselage that also raced in Cleveland, and an odd assortment of other fuselages, wings, cockpits, and engines. Even a number of his aircraft engines were exceptionally rare.
The most stunning and sobering aspect of his collection was the fact that if he had not saved these treasures, it was all but certain that most, if not all of them would have been cut up for scrap metal had he not intervened and saved them. He alone, on the shoestring budget of a carpenter raising five children had taken on this Herculean endeavor in a way that no one before or after him could ever hope to duplicate."
- Wally Soplata, son of Walter Soplata, speaking about visitors touring the collection. Copyright Wally Soplata, used by permission.
Courtesy of the Soplata Family
As someone who has followed news about the Soplata collection for years, MotoArt owner Dave Hall was honored to visit the Ohio location himself. It was as memorable as he imagined it would be. “Being amongst Walter Soplata’s treasured collection and seeing what one man - with the help of his family - could do to preserve aviation history… It was humbling,” said Hall. “His passion for aviation will always be an inspiration to me and I’m so honored that we can preserve some of his vision.”
Coming from the arid Mojave Desert, the lush green Ohio environs was a big change for the MotoArt team. They prepared for snakes but mainly encountered hornets and wasps. Aside from the native wildlife, they worked among the thick grasses and plant life that have overtaken the property and shrouded much of the aircraft both inside and out.
It was an opportunity not only to visit and work in such a mecca for avgeeks, but also to hear more about Walter Soplata from those that knew him best, his family. A bond was formed by the vision to keep Soplata’s dream alive and to share it with those who would appreciate it most. “Reading and hearing stories about this man’s mission to keep these incredible planes from extinction is what inspired us to create the Soplata Collection of PlaneTags,” says Hall. “I know I can’t wait to hold a little part of one of these beauties and I know others will feel the same way.”
Many of the planes Soplata collected in his sanctuary have been sold and then restored into award winning vintage aircraft. MotoArt was able to secure some of the remaining planes which cannot be restored. They will be stored in the company’s private collection in the Mojave Desert. Some of these include a complete F-86L, cockpits from a B-52 Bomber, a P-2 Neptune, an American Airlines DC-7, and a Douglas DC-6. Still, other planes will be made into PlaneTags.
Work has already begun at the MotoArt Studio in Torrance, CA to transform the airplane skin into PlaneTags. “It’s been non-stop work already for us with several large orders, but we are glad to fit our first Soplata Collection plane - the B-36 Peacemaker - into the schedule,” remarked Hall. As the PlaneTags are cut out and etched, other team members have begun the meticulous work of researching, and also designing the display cards and promotional materials. “It has to be perfect,” says Hall. “Anything else is just isn’t worthy.”
Photo courtesy of the Soplata family
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Two visitors to the airplane sanctuary. Photo courtesy of the Soplata family.