Taildragger Tales
HOME > BUFFALO > BW-372 > 3 - GARY VILLIARD
[Back when BW-372 was first lifted out of the water, I got an email from Gary Villiard, who identified himself as "the mystery man" behind the recovery. After exchanging a few emails, he telephoned me and we talked for a while, and we agreed that I would call him for a formal interview. Here are my notes from that interview, first posted here in April 2002. Anything in brackets, I added later. -- Dan Ford]

'That was when they started shooting'
(Gary Villaird's story)

by Gary Villiard

When I started out in Russia in June of 94, I started out in the Gulf of Finland, looking for one particular aircraft, BW-388, because I had had a lead on it given to me by the Naval Museum. Then, after three and a half months of bouncing around on the Gulf of Finland in a boat with a bunch of Russians, I decided that it was really a stupid thing to do, you know. I had a side-scan sonar, magnetometers, and more equipment than I knew how to operate or what to do with. Then I went into the research mode. In the winter of 94-95, I spent considerable time at the Finnish museum and the Finnish archives, and also at the Russian museum and the Russian archives, and I finally came up with two Finnish pilot reports of the two Brewsters that were on a particular mission that matched two Russian pilot reports--same day, same time, same area of Russia. After that I started to compare all four reports. Of course you can imagine that pilots are assumed to be honest and honorable people, but when they file their after-action reports, sometimes it's difficult to believe everybody.

After I did that research, I started running two expeditions, one using a Finnish team and one using a Russian team, and we just started narrowing it down. The reason we weren't exactly positive about the location was because the Finnish pilot reports said that the aircraft crashed at some amount of kilometers north of a particular island, and the Russian pilot reports said that the aircraft crashed at some amount of kilometers north of a particular town. That island and that town were about 40 miles apart. If you're familiar with Karelia, it's got more lakes than Minnesota ever thought of having, so we just had to go through a process of elimination. I ran all my expeditions after that in the wintertime, using snowmobiles, a magnetometer, and a gradiometer to search the lakes. It took us two and a half years to eliminate about 60 lakes.

This past summer [1998] we were down to the last three lakes that possibly could have been where this particular Brewster, BW-372, had force-landed. The Finnish team went in June the 6th, and on June the 10th I got the fax from the Finnish team that they had found this particular aircraft. The reason that I ran a summer expedition was that only the Russians would search in the winter; the Finns would only go in the summertime.

The Finns had done some homework of their own, which of the last three lakes we had left to search, they had gotten a fairly good idea from a [Finnish army] ground team which was in the area when the aircraft crashed--they'd gotten a pretty fair idea of which of these lakes the aircraft was in. As a matter of fact, of the 40 troops that were in that area when the aircraft crashed, there were only three of them alive. Still, they located one of the guys who was still alive, and he remembered it like it was yesterday, and told them exactly where in the lake the aircraft had crashed.

[DF: who remembered?] He was one of the Finnish ground troops who was watching the dogfight. [DF: I thought they were behind Russian lines?] Exactly. They were behind Russian lines.

So we mounted our expedition in July, and on the third of August we launched the expedition to go after this aircraft, and the rest is pretty much different from what the Finns and Russians are saying about it now.

[DF: Are you buying the plane or buying the permit?] No, the permit was free. We actually went to the Karelian government and got a permit--we went to the powers that be in the state, and we got the permit for searching for an aircraft. And we paid our money--you know you have to pay under the table money there, whether you like it or not. And then when they found out it was a Brewster, well, all hell broke loose. That's when things really got tough. Had it been probably any other aircraft I wouldn't have had many problems. But when they found out it was a Brewster....

[DF: So they read the Annals of the Brewster Buffalo too?] Oh, absolutely. The capital of Karelia is Petrozavodsk, and there are guys in Petrozavodsk who stay abreast of the Brewster. As a matter of fact, there were two guys at Petrozavodsk who over the years had been running their own expeditions looking for this particular aircraft, but they were never able to find it. And oddly enough this lake is about two miles long and about half a mile wide, and the only spot in the lake that was deep enough to cover the aircraft was the particular spot that it sank in. And believe me, that bottom depth of 50 feet is only maybe half the size of a football field. The rest of the lake is less than 10 feet deep. So it was ironic that the aircraft had actually sunk in the deepest part of the lake.

I hired a Russian diving team, about eight divers, and we packed in six tons of equipment--rafts and pumps and we just had equipment like there was no tomorrow. We were 60 kilometers from the closest road. We packed that equipment in there, and they built a raft, and a tripod on the raft. They suspended the aircraft from the bottom of the raft, and we float the raft into shallow water. They put tractor tubes? under the wings and the tail and the nose and sequentially inflated it until we floated it to the surface and got it to the shore. Then we built an on-land tripod to lift the aircraft up and actually get it onto the shore.

Flying Tigers
revised and updated

Subsequently we built a bigger tripod, lifted the aircraft up, dropped the landing gear down, and that's when we started to take all of the extraneous items off the aircraft. And we subsequently took it out with a helicopter.

I had about 30 hours of video with me and about 700 pictures, and when I got out of Dodge I had all the videos and the pictures with me. We had two cameras of VHS-C and 8 mm, and we loaded the VHS-C with blank tape, but when we went to take the 8 mm tape out of the camera, the battery was dead, and so we couldn't get the tape out, so when the police came and confiscated the aircraft they got the camera, and those are the pictures off that 8 mm tape that you're seeing [on Finnish TV]. We now have that tape back.

That was when they had started shooting. They were shooting the guns at my people. I had left the day before because I had gotten word that the police were coming, and when they got there they started trying to scare my people into telling them where the rest of the parts of the aircraft were--you know, like making them dance with a .45.

The engine at that time was in the water.

[Referring to a video then available on a Russian website:] The video on that camera is a combination, video that we took and video that they took with that camera after they confiscated it. In one of those pictures you'll see that there is a guy squatting down in front of the Brewster while it's sitting on the bank, I think before we had put the landing gear down, that guy is an American. He is the only American in any of those pictures.

The tires on that aircraft were actually quite surprising. They were made by Nokia, the phone company. The engine is a [Wright Cyclone] 1820-5G I think. I've talked to the pilots of these aircraft that are still alive, and they told me that they never hung a Russian engine on any of their actual aircraft. This particular plane had 10 kills painted on the tail, 4 biplanes which I'm sure were Polikarpov I-15s. The other 6 aircraft were I'm sure either Hurricanes or something.

They arrested the whole team. By that time the divers had left, and I think we had 5 people left in our team, they were on the lake the day that I left, and they were all arrested. They were all Russian.

If you can imagine it being like the Mafia, it's worse than that. Yeah, the Mafia runs the whole country. I went to Moscow and enlisted the help of some of my friends there. They were able to send friends in the aviation business, a team, to Karelia to negotiate with the Attorney General, get my people out of prison, and get the train back on the track.

We sent the same team that they had put in prison back in. They recovered the engine, moved the aircraft [by helo] to an aerodrome not too far away, about 50 miles away, packed the aircraft for shipment to Moscow, packed up all the parts--machine guns, so forth and so on--we trucked the aircraft to Moscow and subsequently containerized it for shipment.

I'm a New Englander by birth. After I got out of the Marine Corps I came down here and got involved in a helicopter business here in Louisiana and had my own company for about 8 years. In 1992 I sold the company, and to be honest, the Brewster has been most of what I've been doing since mid-1993. [DF: How old are you?] 46.

The plane will probably go directly to Pensacola. [Talk of getting the people who restore for the Smithsonian to rebuild it.] This aircraft is serial number 37.

The seatback armor for this particular aircraft, which we recovered with the aircraft, had a thirty-caliber round dead center in the back of it, which did not penetrate the armor but which cracked the armor from the center to the righthand side, and was actually put into the aircraft in this particular dogfight. So the pilot without that armor would have gotten a thirty-caliber round right through his body. It's three-eighths of an inch [thick].

Next: 4 'The Last Brewster' (from a Finnish newspaper)

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