September 28, 2006
Douglas --- Every city has interesting people, but Douglas has a man who likes a challenge, enjoys history and makes a patriotic difference.
He is in every sense, a true adventurer. In the function, if not the form, of Indiana Jones, sans the fedora, leather jacket, and whip, and looks forward to his next challenge; The more challenging, the better.
An office could seem like a prison, especially to an adventurer, unless he is planning his next mission. In Don Brooks' office, airplane parts more than a half century old find a temporary home on the carpeted floor. An old pair of ear phones sits on top of a box near his desk.
"I like challenges; I like building things," says Don Brooks of the Brooks Auto Parts chain of stores, from its modest headquarters.
He will go anywhere in the world to rescue symbols of our freedom, and often plans his trips from his auto parts office. As a kid, his father told him war stories of his flying experiences as a gunner during World War II.
Those stories were the key motivator for him to become an adventurer, saving pieces of flying history, one airplane at a time. "We're also preserving part of our history," says Don, as he unlocks a hanger door.
People sometimes laugh at Don when he brings an old airplane in the back of a pick-up truck to restore, wondering if it will ever fly again. It joins the parts of other WWII planes that sit everywhere in the hanger, one of the three original hangers remaining at the Douglas Airport that trained 9,000 pilots.
Long tables hold wings of a P-40 turned up side down with the landing gear pointing skyward. The wheels have new brake linings and stand ready to receive tires. The hundreds of rivets look like the day the wings were made, in the 1940s.
A blue North American plane sits nearby without wings to conserve precious hanger space. They will fly again from the old training field in Douglas, but they won't takeoff anytime soon, except for a P-40, almost restored. "It has an Allison 12-cylinder, 1,200 horsepower at takeoff," says Don, as he smiles when looking at the plane's engine that looks brand new.
"We've been working on it on and off for 10 years," says Don. It should fly in a few months. Then, he'll sell it to fund the restoration of a B-17 that looks more like a skeleton than an airplane. "That's for sure!" says Don.
Talented hands have started restoring it little by little, reversing the corrosion of time. "We'll have the B-17 here for eight to ten years."
How do the mechanics know what part to put where? They got copies of repair manuals from the Smithsonian.
Finding parts can become a worldwide adventure. "It's the fun, the chase just to find those parts," says Don. Parts come from places like Australia, New Zealand, and Russia, and nothing seems to stop him, not even 270 feet of solid ice in Greenland. "The Greenland Expedition was tough, but rewarding," says Don who handled the trip's logistics.
In an expedition well documented by National Geographic, he helped recover a P-38-- which has become known as Glacier Girl-- from the Greenland ice cap, against almost impossible odds, removing the plane piece-by-piece and bringing it back home. "It's a good thing," says Don.
He risks his life to remember the greatest generation that risked its life for our freedom. "I do it to honor our veterans," says Don, even though he never served in the military. Now, he restores airplanes and memories that will soar again.