Skip to comments.Low-key aviation buff helps bring past roaring back to life
Posted on 10/16/2007 9:02:37 AM PDT by Dysart
BRECKENRIDGE - Nelson Ezell doesn't simply repair old airplanes; he brings them back from the dead.
And not just any planes.
Some of the world's rarest aircraft enter his business as little more than a pile of rubble only to leave his nondescript hangar at the Stephens County Airport, about 115 miles west of Fort Worth, to become part of aviation buffs' prized collections.
A look around the cramped hangar provides a sense of Ezell's craft.
A Lockheed P-38L, one of the world's rarest planes, sits in a corner. When the multimillion-dollar restoration is complete, the P-38 Lightning will be one of only five flying in the world; it's destined for Austria and the Red Bull sports drink Flying Bulls team.
Other rare planes in the hangar, in various stages of repair, include a Vought F4U-4 Corsair fighter, a Grumman F8F-1 Bearcat and a Temco EJ-1, one of only 14 such jets ever built.
It's just another day at the mom-and-pop business that works on such planes, usually for millionaire collectors who are willing to spare no expense to get these World War II relics flying again.
"It just sort of evolved over the years," said Nelson Ezell, 64. "I never had a plan. One thing led to another, and pretty soon I was restoring warbirds full time. It's just kept growing, and we're not through yet."
But that's just Ezell being characteristically modest, his friends say.
"That humble little hangar in Breckenridge, Texas, has turned out a lot of warbirds. It's amazing how many planes have come out of that place," said Stewart Dawson, a retired Southwest Airlines pilot who owns a Hawker Sea Fury that Ezell restored.
Ezell, who runs the business with his wife, Dude, and grown sons Ashley and Chad, does more than simply repair or paint the planes; he resurrects planes that many would believe are beyond hope.
Take the Corsair that the Ezells restored for the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston. The World War II fighter was a wreck, said Larry Gregory, the museum's president.
"Our Corsair was used as a gate guard in Argentina," Gregory said. "But Nelson and his family were able to make a beautiful airframe out of a pile of junk. They make something beautiful out of nothing. I think, without a doubt, that he's the best out there."
The Ezells not only shape metal and paint the airframes but also do mechanical and hydraulic work and fabricate parts for planes that no longer exist.
One of their most significant rebuilding jobs was a Supermarine Seafire FR 47. The restored Seafire, the aircraft carrier-based version of the famed Spitfire, is the only airworthy example of its type in the world, said Jim Smith, the plane's owner.
"Ezell had the parts in a storage bin," said Smith, who lives in Fortine, Mont. "I made him a deal to build it. Before he started working on it, it really looked like a pile of junk. But it's just a classic example of the kind of work Ezell does. It's one of the rarest, most expensive planes out there."
Twenty-five years ago, Ezell couldn't have envisioned making a career of working on relics.
Always mechanically inclined - he had built his own airboats in Florida - he was intrigued when asked to fix a World War II-era plane.
He eventually relocated to Breckenridge from Florida after two local men who owned warbirds asked him to work on them.
"When I came here, there were four Corsairs, three owned by Howard Pardue, on this airfield and another local individual had just bought a B-25," Ezell said.
"There was enough work to keep three or four people busy full time working on those planes."
He formed Ezell Aviation in 1986, but his other payoff was flying the planes.
Ezell would accompany Pardue to the world-famous Reno Air Races. This year, Ezell finished fifth in the highest category, Unlimited Gold, flying a Sea Fury.
"I never would have had the opportunity to fly these planes on my own," Ezell said. "Normally, the only way you get to fly these planes is to own them, but I've had the chance to fly all kinds of warbirds and to race at Reno, which is always fun."
Dawson, who finished third in the same race in a Sea Fury rebuilt by Ezell, calls him a natural in the cockpit and a "master fabricator."
Dawson, who lives in Celina, helps pilots of World War II-era planes meet FAA requirements. He said Ezell can visualize a solution to just about any problem.
"There was a person up in Oklahoma who couldn't get a piece of sheet metal to fit on the wing of his plane," Dawson said.
"This particular person worked at it for weeks and weeks, and he just couldn't make that piece of sheet metal work.
"Nelson and I flew up there, and Nelson went over to his pile of scraps. He rummages through the pile, looks at it, gets on the English wheel and in 15 minutes he had a piece that went slap right on the airplane. The guy who had been trying for two weeks to get it on there had a few choice words."
Prices have skyrocketed in the years since Ezell began restoring warbirds as more wealthy collectors have entered the market.
"I would say if a plane is just barely a warbird or a trainer, you can get it for $100,000, but if it's something more exotic, you can spend anywhere in the range of $3 million or $4 million," Smith said.
Smith said the P-38 restoration the Ezells are undertaking is "about as exotic as you can get."
But the Ezells say many of their neighbors in Breckenridge have no idea what they do. Dude - her father nicknamed her Dude of the town - joked that many people in Breckenridge don't even realize that there's an airport in town.
That story doesn't surprise Gregory, of the Lone Star Flight Museum.
Ezell is "probably more well-known in Europe than in Breckenridge for what he does," Gregory said. "But that's his style. He's Mr. Cool. He's Mr. Laid-back. He's a true gentleman and a fantastic craftsman. And a lot of your best secrets are at small, out-of-the-way places. I think Breckenridge fits him pretty well.
“This is a story that should have never been published in to days society. Vandals and other fringe haters will stoop to any level to destroy the work of a person of skill and knowledge and thieves will be far to willing to clean him out.”
Huh? What are you talking about?
We did a job across the street from the edge of the Van Nuys airport, i’m guessing it was in the late 70s, and in a fenced yard was an unrestored but complete P-38 sitting out in the open.
I’ve always wondered what happened to that bird, it even had the engines on it.
An English wheel in the hands of a skilled craftsman is a sight to see. There are probably just a few people left in thwe world that have that level of expertise.
Talk about a dream job.
Thanks for the link. I agree with everyone, this is a great story.
OK, I give up... what’s an “English wheel?”
Thanks for the article, and may God Bless all those in the CONFEDERATE Air Force that fly these beautiful birds. I got to go to a C.A.F. air show at Minter Field in CA many years ago. Still got my Red Baron triplane pin on my motorcycle jacket.
Yeah, I know it ain’t PC to call ‘em Confederate any more.
When I ride my ol’ HD ‘87 Softail Custom, I dream I’m in an old open cockpit canvas biplane soaring thru the skies.
Noble work keeping warbirds flying.
History you can touch and feel. Our freedom in aluminum.
One of the greatest time periods of flight.
A link to a P-40 sim:
This is from one of the projects I have worked on over the past several years.
By the way, the engine sound is from a real P-40 based at Addison Airport at the Cavanaugh Flight Museum.
They took the plane up for us so we could record and film the whole experience.
You can see the actual plane and walk around here:
Kudos!!! Just got back from England and went to the Duxford Air Museum near Cambridge. It was unbelievable. You could spend almost two days there looking at restored aircraft - they had almost everything British & American that has flown from just before WWII to now (civil & military).
That FB / B2 picture....looked like Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker
That FB / B2 picture....looked like Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker
It’s a sheet metal tool. It usually a large steel frame with multiple rollers above and below. A piece of sheet metal is moved back and forth through the wheel creating shapes and curves in the metal. It was used in the early automotive days to create curved and shaped panels on cars. The rollers are able to be adjusted individually up and down, in and out, therefore being able to alter the shape of the metal. But, the skill to use the English wheel is all hand eye coordination plus lots of experience.
You can Google it to see a better explanation.
They still ise DC3/C46/DC6 to haul cargo every day in Alaska.
It’s *fun* to visit the “The Ted” (airport) on Tuesdays.
It’s wonderful what the man is doing but acknowledging that expensive planes, some former military, are involved will just push the left lug nuts to want to destroy the planes. Since we know the type of equipment needed to untake such rebuilds the thieves will be hot to clean the place out.