Sorry Saga of the Brewster Buffalo


BW-372 in the lake

1998: the discovery in Russia

On September 1, 1998, television stations in Finland showed a Brewster fighter that had just been pulled from a lake in Karelia, territory over which Finland and Russia fought in the Winter War of 1939-40 and again in the Continuation War of 1941-1944. (Look on a map for St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, and you'll see why the Russians were determined to own Karelia.) The site was Big Kolejärvi Lake, just below the 64th parallel of longitude and 60 miles east of the present Finnish border.

The airplane proved to be BW-372, one of 44 "de-navalized" F2A-1s that Finland was allowed to buy from the Brewster company during the Winter War. They were assembled and test-flown in Sweden by Swedish, Finnish, and American technicians but didn't reach the front before Finland was forced to sign the armistice that cost them Karelia. After the Germans invaded Russia in June 1941, the Finns took back the lost land in a campaign that saw the Brewster fighters triumph over the Russian air force. That one of them had literally surfaced in Russia was thrilling news, to say the least. Until this moment, we'd believed that no Brewster Buffalo had survived the war.

The airplane not long after it emerged from the water. The engine and machineguns are missing, and there is damage to the cockpit and the vertical stabilizer, but the plane is in remarkable condition. Note the landing gear supporting the plane and the tires still inflated! (They were manufactured by Nokia, later famous for building cell phones.) Also notice the bent-leg cross on the fuselage and wing, a Nordic good-luck symbol similar to the infamous German swastika.

Whose plane was it, anyhow?

After I put this story on the Annals of the Brewster Buffalo, I got a phone call from Gary Villiard, who identified himself as a Louisiana businessman who'd spent five years searching for a Brewster Buffalo. He told me in great detail how he'd found BW-372 and pulled it from the water. (Indeed, he later gave me the GPS coordinates.) When his team learned that the police were coming, he said, they threw the engine back into the lake and went into hiding with the instrument panel and other parts. The video footage that appeared on Finnish television had been taken by a camera belonging to him, and which the Russians had confiscated. With Gary's agreement, I called him back and taped an interview for publication.

Later, though, I talked with Marvin Kottman, a Nebraska businessman who had done some work in connection with the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, and who now disputed most of what Villiard had told me. Kottman said that he was originally Villiard's backer but dropped out of the project when Villiard seemed to be going off on his own. I also exchanged emails with Marja Lampi, the daughter of Finnish Air Force pilot Heimo Lampi (5.5 victories on the Brewster, 13.5 altogether). She confirmed Kottman's version of events and said that she had served as Finnish liaison and interpreter for the search team, at her father's urging. (In 1998, Marja still went by her married name of Dmitriev.)

Lampi and Kottman were as surprised as anyone else when they heard the news that BW-372 had been found.

Marja sent me this photo, taken in front of St. Isac's Cathederal, St. Petersburg, in June 1994. On the left is Vladimir Prytkov, a Russian nuclear physicist who set up Petro Avia, the salvage company that actually recovered the Brewster fighter. In the center is Gary Villiard, and on the right is Marja Lampi. Not shown is another Finn, Timo Nyman, who was also crucial to the discovery.

Kaleyarivi to Segezha to Tver to Ireland

Meanwhile, the Russian authorities brought in a helicopter, lifted BW-372 from the recovery site, and took it to Segezha airfield 50 kilometers away. According to Villiard, the authorities had to release his people from jail because they were the only people around who knew how to sling the Brewster beneath the helo. In a remarkable twist, Segezha was probably been the very field from which a Russian fighter took off to shoot BW-372 down in June 1942.

Marvin Kottman still wanted the plane, and in September 1998 he and Lampi traveled to Segezha and saw the Brewster at the airport where it had been left by the local authorities. Kottmann offered $500,000 for the plane, plus a $10,000 donation to the Segezha school. But the local authorities got another offer, of a type they couldn't refuse, and in the end the Brewster was turned over to a Moscow-based aircraft company named Aviazapchast, or Avia Transport.

Aviazapchast moved the Brewster to Moscow (earlier reports said Tver), supposedly for restoration. For the next two months, all that came out of Russia with respect to BW-372 was that the plane was a national treasure and would never be released. Then, one day in December 1998, we heard that it had reappeared at Shannon Airport in the west of Ireland.

Next: Gary Villiard's story

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