MARIPOSA — Kent Lentz once met a World War II veteran who said, "There won't be any more reunions, because there aren't many of us left. It's up to the next generation to carry this story forward."
Lentz decided it was up to him. As a collector of memorabilia from "the most incredible history ever," he dreamed of one day bringing back a Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk.
At the time, Lentz didn't realize how long it would take to fulfill that dream. In the more than 20 years since then, he has amassed thousands of photos, diagrams, descriptions, pages of notes and news clips.
During WWII, the Tomahawks became known as the "Flying Tigers," a nickname given by the Chinese and Japanese press. As a child, Lentz saw a Flying Tiger and never forgot the image.
"The Fighting Tigers were vital during WWII. The P-40 became a national icon," Lentz says.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, most of the P-40s parked on the flight line at Wheeler Field on the island of Oahu were destroyed in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
A few continued to fly.
Shortly after a prayer asking God to let him be instrumental in rebuilding a Tomahawk, Lentz met Mike Fortner. Two days later, Lentz drafted an outline of the reconstruction process. The meeting took place in 1989, and the outline served as the base of the project for the next 18 years.
"Through a fortuitous series of circumstances which brought us together, we risked our lives to recover parts," Lentz reminisces.
Fortner had collected a pile of parts and an aircraft engine. Copies of the blueprints were obtained from the Smithsonian.
The two men funded the operation until money ran out. They then formed the nonprofit historical foundation Project Tomahawk, hoping to attract people to become members and to help finance the work. Membership grew to about 100, including Ken Taylor, a P-40 pilot who had been stationed at Pearl Harbor. He made history on the day of the attack with his heroic efforts and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
Lentz's documentation includes Air Force records of a Tomahawk that had crashed on Oahu. The remains of this plane became part of his restoration project.
Project members went on recovery missions looking for crashed P-40s and usable parts. One plane was found in Kings Canyon in the Sierra Nevada at an altitude of 11,500 feet. They went in with pack mules and horses. The debris field was a quarter of a mile wide. Two years later, the National Forest Service provided a helicopter to recover more parts while cleaning up the area.
"There were a lot of skeptics," Lentz remembers. "It did look impossible, because I didn't want to build a plane just to park it. I wanted to build it to fly again."
Within a couple of years they had accumulated three piles of wreckage and a second engine. The next step was to locate a place to store the parts and build the plane.
"One member's father had built original P-40s," Lentz says. "He was a historian and member of the Torrance, California, police department. He asked the city administrators to donate a hangar for us to use."
Aerospace companies donated machinery and materials.
They began sorting through the salvaged parts. Some were usable, others looked worthless but were hammered flat or straightened to serve as patterns. This proved to be invaluable.
"It required remanufacturing from the ground up," Lentz says. "But I had built rockets that traveled to the moon. I knew I could rebuild a plane."
Then they constructed a wooden mock-up. The construction crew consisted of two or three who worked regularly and others who helped when they could.
Attending air shows with the model plane generated interest.
"Every piece and part was labeled and tagged with numbers," Lentz explains. "It was a museum workshop. We held an open house twice a year for supporters to come and see the progress."
With 70,000 rivet holes that had to fit exactly, a five to seven-step process had to be completed for each hole to check sizing, positioning and durability.
The project gained national attention and was featured in several publications, including The Wall Street Journal.
Because radio technology had advanced over the years, Lentz put in a radio box that was hollow. A new high-tech radio went into the aft end of the 50-caliber receiver machine gun.
Lentz built the assembly fixture, all the templates, and close to 90 percent of the top half of the fuselage. Then his team turned the project over to Stephen Grey and Matt Nightingale in Rancho Cucamonga. They finished the work, staying in contact with Lentz, who helped with consulting and inspecting. The final cost was $1.5 million.
Using Lentz's calculations, the wing was built in Australia and shipped to California.
"It was a perfect fit," he says proudly.
In December 2006, the restored plane was complete and the engine fired up. Pilot Steve Hinton sat in the cockpit on Jan. 12, 2007, for the first flight.
"You don't celebrate first flight, you celebrate the first landing," Lentz said, laughing.
Lentz's plane is now owned by Grey, who lives in Duxford, England.
Today, four P-40s exist that are capable of being airborne. A model P-40 is displayed in Pensacola, Fla., at the Naval Air Station. Lentz had a part in rebuilding each of them.
Currently retired and living in Mariposa, he is planning to turn his documentation into a book.
Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at email@example.com.