Flying Tiger: Replica P-40 Plane Centerpiece of Memorial
Fierce shark’s teeth snarl from the nose of Zeb Harrington’s P-40 Warhawk. Gun barrels poke out of each wing, ready for combat.
It is all realistic, but none of it is real. Instead, it’s all bits of junk and spare parts crafted into what is almost certainly the biggest model plane of its scale ever built — a nearly full-sized replica of the kind of fighter Flying Tiger Robert Hoyle Upchurch flew in China the afternoon he was shot down during World War II.
Harrington and Roland Gilliam trucked it down to Carthage last week, along the way passing a monument Congress erected on Courthouse Square to honor a pioneer fighter pilot who, like Upchurch, lost his life defending others: James Rogers McConnell, a founder of the famed Lafayette Escadrille of the First World War.
Harrington’s P-40 is to be the centerpiece of a permanent memorial to Upchurch at Gilliam-McConnell Airfield in Carthage. A plaque brought from China will take its place on a granite pillar near another that bears a bronze plaque France sent in 1917 to honor McConnell.
On April 7, an official delegation from China will join state and local officials for a dedication ceremony honoring Upchurch as an example of those who risk and lose their lives helping people around the world fight oppression.
Harrington said he built his model from junk, so he called it “Junkyard Dog” and painted that name on the fuselage. It took around three years, working in his backyard from time to time. He never imagined his hobby model plane would have this destiny.
He thinks he first had the idea of the plane rebuild as a boy.
“Probably when I was about 6 or 7 years old, because I’ve always loved airplanes anyway,” he said, sitting in the cockpit last week and looking across the runway. “When I retired, I figured now or never. I worked in construction, so I had a lot of stuff laying around — you know, pipes and aluminum and tin. I just started putting it together, and it just kept getting bigger and bigger.”
Wooden frame parts were covered with riveted metal in patterns matching the genuine article. From inches away, every bit of this imitation P-40 looks completely real, even the instruments Harrington points to in its cockpit.
“These are jar lids — you know, when women can? The Ball lid?” he said. “That’s a toothpick, painted white, the pointer. Just toothpicks. It’s all fake. All the gauges are just pasteboard, jar lids, toothpicks, scrap and plastic.”
His engine primer is a plastic rod capped with an old handle from a lawnmower’s starter cord.
“I looked at a book on the real P-40,” he said. “I came across — when they were flying in China and had the vests with the emergency stuff on them — a silk map of China. I found it at an antique show. It unfolds, and has northern China on one side and southern China on the other. You could fold it up to no weight and very small, you know.”
Gilliam heard about the P-40 and was skeptical, since real Curtiss fighters of that vintage are rare. He took a chance and drove to Harrington’s Chatham County house, knocked on the door and the two met.
Sure enough, in the backyard was the Junkyard Dog — no engine, but looking for all the world as if it could fire up and fly off.
When Harrington heard about the memorial to Upchurch, he agreed to bring his P-40.
“It’s a worthwhile deal there, I thought,” Harrington said. “I said, ‘I’ll go with that.’ I think it will probably be looked after. They’ve got more facility here to look after something than I do. It’s like he told me the other day: I’ve got room in the backyard now, I could build something else.”
Although Harrington grew up loving airplanes, he never became a pilot. He served three years in the Army, three in the Reserve and retired from the National Guard. He rigged parachutes, trained paratroopers, and jumped, but the only plane he ever got into the cockpit of was his P-40 model.
“He went to the Army and Navy store every Saturday,” his wife, Martha Harrington,said. “If he ever took flying lessons, you know what that would mean? An airplane.”
Harrington will be introduced during the ceremony. Seating is limited, and those who wish to attend are asked to bring their own folding chairs.
Contact John Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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