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The odyssey: Russia to Ireland to the U.S.

BW-372's owner of record was now an Irishman named Michael Ryan, who supposedly bought it at auction, had the fuselage cut into two pieces, and flew it out of the country on a Russian transport plane. (I'm told that there was no such auction.) This photo was posted on the newsgroup rec.aviation.military by a passer-by who spotted BW-372, apparently on its first morning in Ireland. The plane was under what looks like burlap sacking, with the Finnish Air Force identification number showing through. Soon afterward, the photographer was threatened with legal action, and he removed his picture from the internet. I kept it up, however, figuring that it was honest journalism, and no lawyers came after me.

The trail of tears: Michael Ryan's story

BW-372 was the subject of frantic interest for three months. Then it left the country in very odd circumstances--flown first to Cork Airport in Ireland, thence to Shannon (where the photograph above was taken), and finally to Dublin. As for its exact location, a fair guess was a hangar near Dublin Airport belonging to a pair of companies doing business as VAP. The owner of record is sometimes identified as Michael Ryan as an individual, and sometimes as the Irish Millennium Corporation of County Tipperary.

In March 1999, Mr. Ryan gave a deposition in the U.S. District Court in Lincoln, Nebraska. After eighteen years with the Bank of Ireland--in that country, in the U.S., and in Britain--he went into the real-estate business, and by November 1990 he was working for a company called Irelesto PLC. (Maybe something to do with "Ireland east"?)

Irelesto was set up to sell Russian aircraft and spare parts in partnership with a Russian bank called SBS Agro, at one time the second-largest in the country. The bank's president, Ryan said, was Alexander Smolensky, who was identified by Newsweek as one of "Moscow's most powerful oligarchs." The "oligarchs," the newsmagazine reported, may well have been linked to a money-laundering operation that sucked $7 billion out of Russia from 1996 to 1998--"the law-enforcement equivalent of Myst, the famously opaque computer game" (Newsweek, Feb. 20, 2000).

According to Ryan's deposition, the vice-president of SBS Agro was Valery Zakharenkov, who handled the bank's aircraft enterprise in Ireland. As now organized, it does business as a pair of companies called VAP Group Ltd. and VAP Aviation Group Ltd.. Each, for all practical purposes, is solely owned by Zakharenkov, though Ryan serves on the board of directors. So the most likely resting place for BW-372 is at VAP's hangar-warehouse on Collinstown Cross Road at Dublin Airport.

A rummage through Irish corporate records showed that Millennium Developments Ltd. has its office at 38 Percy Place in Dublin. President is Leslie Ryan, secretary is Michael Ryan, both living at The Rectory, Danohill, Tipperary. The stock appears to be owned by two other companies, Northcote Ltd. and Renmount Ltd., both to be found at 41 Central Chambers, Dame Court, Dublin. (Sounds like a law office. The stock was transferred by the Ryans.) Michael Ryan is also a director of four other companies, some with names associated with BW-372: VAP Group Ltd., VAP Aviation Ltd., Rockets Castle Freight Management Ltd., and Omega Helicopters Ltd. (This stuff is hand-written, and I did a bit of guessing.)

The trail of tears: Gary Villiard's story

Gary Villiard, who was largely responsible for recovering the aircraft, told me that the owners had indeed "relocated" the plane, and that he himself was neither an owner nor a partner of the new owners. Still, I once emailed Mr. Ryan, and his reply came to me on Mr. Villiard's email account! In the same U.S. District Court, there was this confusing dialog on the matter, between attorney Clarence Mock and Mr. Villiard:

Q. Did you receive any financial remuneration from VAP related to the Brewster Buffalo?

A. Have I received any?

Q. Are you owed any?

A. No.

Q. Have you received any?

A. No.

Q. Did you have any financial interest in the Brewster Buffalo recovery from Karilla [sic]?

A. Yes.

Q. What was that?

A. I had a 50 percent interest in the aircraft.

Sorry Saga of the Brewster Buffalo

The negotiations begin

In January 2002, BW-372 was shipped to the United States, to be housed in several crates at the shorefront in Mobile, Alabama. Meanwhile it was offered for sale for about $1 million in various trade-a-plane venues and on eBay. The National Air & Space Museum was interested, but NASM has no money to spend nor planes to trade. So the clincher party was the Museum of Naval Aviation at Pensacola—the same outfit that had originally asked Marvin Kottman to look for a Brewster fighter to add to its collection.

The deal was to swap the plane for three Lockheed P-3 Orion patrol planes that the navy had declared surplus (much as, in 1940, it had declared BW-372 surplus so that it could be sold cheap to Finland with 43 of its brethren). The Brewster's owner could then recoup his expenses—and presumably turn a bit of a profit—by selling these planes on the used-aircraft market. Despite the fantastical chain of companies that supposedly owned BW-372 over the past six years—the most recent being Vintage Holdings—that would be Gary Villiard, with whatever partners he had acquried during the Brewster's odyssey.

In the winter of 2001-02, this promising note appeared on the Commerce Business Daily website: "The Naval Inventory Control Point (NAVICP) Philadelphia is proposing to acquire a Brewster Buffalo (F2A-1) on behalf of the National Museum of Naval Aviation (NMNA) through the Navy's museum exchange program. In exchange, the NAVICP will trade three (3) stricken P3 aircraft currently located at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Az. The exchange will proceed on or after 06 Dec 2001."

I called the contract officer in Philadelphia, and he confirmed that the Buffalo in question was BW-372. As far as he knew, the plane was still in Ireland, and still belonged to the Millenium corporation, meaning the banker and entrepreneur Michael Ryan who emerged as the plane's owner soon after it was spirited out of Russia. "There are issues to be worked through," the contract officer said--very tactfully, I thought.

After nearly three years of periodic phone calls, we were probably equally delighted that, on August 19, 2004, Steve was finally able to say "I can confirm" that BW-372 was in Pensacola. Interestingly enough, after all the hoo-hah about VAP, Michael Ryan, and Irish Millennium Corp., the plane's owner turned out to be — surprise! — Gary Villiard.

The museum's director hinted that the plan was to display BW-372 in its original warpaint, though it seems to be far from settled how much restoration will be done at this time. The fuselage arrived in two pieces, each of which is presently resting on a jig. The engine at this report was still crated, with the propeller wrapped around it as a result of a water landing while it was still turning over. The machine guns are missing--apparently the asking price was too high!

The battle damage was extensive, including the entry wound from one bullet that pierced the leading edge of the port wing and exited out the trailing edge. The kill markings on the tail are visible (including a biplane), along with the "Farting Elk" emblem that was unique to the 2nd Squadron of the LLv 24 fighter group. See the photo of the Brewsters at left, as well as Tal Donaldson's portrait on this site. On BW-372's nose is the lynx emblem worn by all of Llv 24's Brewsters.

The Brewster's fuselage arrived in two crates, the engine (with the propeller wrapped around it) in a third crate, the wings in a fourth, and other bits and pieces in a fifth. The crates were sent to the museum's restoration hangar, where the two halves of the fuselage were set on jigs, and the wings put in place:

Starboard view of BW-372
Starboard view of the Brewster fighter. The Finnish fuselage number and hakaristi (bent-leg cross) are clearly visible. Photo by Bill Dunbar.

Port view of BW-372
Port view of BW-372. Note the plump tire, manufactured by Nokia and still inflated when the plane came out of the water! The hindquarters of a lynx (the squadron emblem) are visible just above the wing.

The museum hoped to reassemble the Brewster and display it as it came from the lake in Russia. "Damage caused by enemy fire and subsequent crash landing will not be disturbed," says the museum's director. "Only damage done during recovery, storage and movement operations will be repaired.... As near as possible, it will be fully authentic and original and instantly recognizable as a Finnish Air Force Model 239 Buffalo at a point in time when it made its last flight in hostile skies and settled to the bottom of the lake."

Alas, those good intentions came to nothing. On September 16, 2004, Hurricane Ivan swept through Pensacola and seriously damaged both the community and the museum. That, and perhaps BW-372's clouded history, persuaded the museum to "loan" the aircraft to Finland, where it went on display at the Central Museum of Aviation in March 2008. The loan period was three and one-half years, but nine years have since elapsed. Apparently almost everyone is happy: Gary Villiard got his money, the Finns got their aircraft back, and the Pensacola museum is rid of a public-relations problem. The exceptions would be Marvin Kottman, who bankrolled the search, and Marja Lampi, who believes she is owed for the work she and her Finnish colleagues did.

Next: 6 'It's so wrong, what has happened'

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