For more than a decade, a forlorn B-25J Mitchell 44-31508 has sat more or less abandoned and exposed to nature at an airfield in Franklin, Virginia. Many have tried in vain to do something positive to help the aircraft, but a complicated legal dispute has made doing so next to impossible for a very long time. And so the tired bomber has sat, slowly returning to the elements as the squabbling continued. Happily though, an Australian husband and wife team, whose warbird collection is known mysteriously as Reevers, has stepped in to give the tired warhorse, known ironically as “Lucky Lady“, a new lease on life down-under. Here WarbirdsNews regular antipodean correspondent, Phil Buckley recently interviewed Peter Smythe who is coordinating the recovery and restoration of “Lucky Lady” and he takes up the story here…
Reevers growing warbird collection
Australian Peter Smythe has been a warbird enthusiast, researcher and collector for a long time, with his efforts resulting in the ever-expanding Reevers warbird collection. This collection has grown into a diverse and unique fleet for Australia and comprises the following aircraft…
– Douglas B-26 Invader, 44-35898, currently undergoing assessment in Queensland with a view to acting on its immediate future in the next six weeks. This could be either repair in situ or transport by road to a repair facility in southern Australia. Click HERE to see WarbirdsNews report on this aircraft.
– B-17 Flying Fortress – While this is presently a collection of parts and drawings, a shipment of B-17 components is currently being readied for shipment to Australia and following this, larger sections will be recovered and consolidated into this long term project.
– Republic P-43 Lancer – There are no complete Lancers known to exist, but Reevers has enough material to form the basis of a rebuild. While this project is in its early phases, as time permits and the allocation of resources improves, this particular aircraft will be developed into a static rebuild.
Other projects currently parked for future work include Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk A-29-99 and Supermarine Spitfires BS219 and BS234. Of course the future will certainly bring trades and possible changes in Reevers priorities, but this will be dependent upon operational demands i.e. keeping aircraft flying or in good display condition.
B-25 – From an Idea to Warbird Project
As the primary researcher and co-ordinator of the B-25 Mitchell project for Reevers, Peter Smythe is focused on raising awareness to the largely forgotten history of WWII B-25 operations by the Dutch and Australian Air Forces. Peter says that, “Reevers’s interest in B-25s generally came about [accidentally] over the last few years. I was researching in 2010 the use of the Brewster Buffalo, a type I have longed to locate. I discovered the Dutch used them along with the RAAF in South East Asia and also in Australia. In researching the Dutch operations from Australia during WWII, I found that many sad stories were recorded such as the Broome Raids, Dutch refugees landing on remote parts of Australia with many perishing due to the elements – all of which lead me to discover that the Dutch, as well as the RAAF had a squadron each of B-25 Mitchells.”
Dutch B-25 operations during WWII
Peter had previously known only that the US Army Air Force operated the type from far northern Queensland and the Northern Territory, but during his investigation he found that the Dutch also flew them, taking the fight to the enemy with some impressive raids against Japanese targets in former Dutch colonies. With further digging, Smythe discovered that Dutch involvement with fighting the Japanese from Australian bases was more significant than he had expected. So with an interest in Mitchells now sparked and a wish to give some recognition to the Dutch airmen who fought their war from Australia, Peter began extensive research on former operational aircraft, many of which are sadly rotting away. Locating parts for public display was equally frustrating. Peter was surprised to find just one partially complete example in Australia, at a museum in Darwin, Northern Australia, which also had the remains from several other Mitchells in storage. He recollects that, “on a couple of occasions I was allowed to inspect the B-25 sections in storage, but in the end of the discussions it became apparent that the Museum in Darwin would never part with them. So I focussed on other ventures; buying, selling, trading, and recovering to help further the plans to acquire a B-25 Mitchell somehow….” Being a resourceful person however, Peter Smythe says, “Whenever a B-25 came onto the market I always made inquiries. Many an aero trader out there could testify to my tenacious nature when it comes to the B-25.”
With limited wrecks and virtually nothing in Australia to work from, Peter admits, “I finally reached a point when I figured I would have to get one probably from a Pacific nation, and probably one in very poor condition. I began enquiries and had some positive feedback.” Peter says he would, “generally engage a local museum or council member to supply photos or to have people I know inspect the aircraft.” With feedback coming in, it became obvious that the B-25 wrecks still available are, as Smythe expressed, “in my opinion, past it”. With his local and Pacific options now crossed off the potential survivor locations list, Peter Smythe turned to the USA.
Lucky on e-bay
Peter says in his search for a potential airframe, “I knew of the Franklin B-25 and a few others sitting around the globe, and made efforts to contact the respective owners – not a lot of luck there.” Then out of the blue in late 2014, he received an e-mail saying that Lucky Lady was listed on the online auction site e-bay. Peter Smythe decided to follow this opportunity, but due to poor timing and other priorities he couldn’t place a bid… “So I lost that opportunity, but then came another email to me, telling me that the new owner only wanted a few parts to put towards a project they already had, and the remaining aircraft shell would be sold.” With this new window of opportunity now open to finally acquire a B-25 Mitchell, Peter said, “I recommended that Reevers made the necessary inquiries, confirm the status of the aircraft, and purchase it.” Reevers clearly felt that the B-26 Invader they already owned would make a great display side-by-side the Mitchell.
Lucky Lady’s history to date has been mixed. Peter says, “her life from WWII to the mid-1960s indicates she had a few private owners and then in 1967 she was converted into a camera ship for film use, which saw her used in the Battle of Britain movie in 1967-1968 in Europe. She then wasn’t used until new buyers bought her in late 1970s. She was restored to flying status and from the early 1980s to 1999 was flying as a warbird, but again withdrawn from use in 1999 at Franklin, Virginia.” Since 1999, the aircraft has remained, minus an engine and mostly neglected to the elements, in Franklin, Virginia.
Reevers Acquires a Mitchell
After the sale and transfer of the aircraft to Reevers concluded in early 2015, Reevers began to organise its move to South Australia. Reevers decided to offer the Mitchell’s tear-down to a museum local to Franklin so their members could gain skills and the museum some extra capital. So from late April to early May 2015, Lucky Lady’s disassembly took place and she is now being prepared for shipment to her new home in Australia. The tear-down team did a superb job, but it became apparent during the work that the aircraft will need some major repairs once in Australia to slow down some serious corrosion problems the aircraft now suffers from. Once in Australia, a complete inspection will take place to identify the missing parts, such as turrets, engine and internal fittings. Paperwork for the aircraft’s export to Australia has been submitted, with the Australian authorities giving the green light for the import. Once the US authorities have signed off on the export, the Mitchell will be crated for the next available shipment to Australia. WarbirdsNews will follow Lady Luck’s travels and report on further progress during her rebuild as she moves towards long term preservation.
Since the B-25 acquisition, Reevers has considered options to acquire further warbirds and historic civilian aircraft, including another B-25 and some rarer, exotic aircraft types – some with connections to Australia. However, as Peter Smythe states, “We are now happy with our current lot and will focus on getting the Lucky Lady to Australia and put on display as soon as possible.”
WarbirdsNews wishes to thank Phil Buckley for his report, and especially to Peter Smythe and Reevers for both saving an important aircraft, and providing us with photographs of her recovery. We wish them much luck in the future. Reevers has a presence of Facebook HERE. Their website is still in its infancy, but can be found HERE.
For more photographs of the dismantling process see the gallery below. It’s clear that this will be a mammoth restoration process, but it’s great news to see this aircraft being saved for the future.
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