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Marion man keeps ace fighter pilots’ legacies alive through collection
With second ‘Top Gun' movie release, a fighter aviation enthusiast looks back at the start of a massive collection
MARION — David Wendell’s biggest hobby began at age 3, when he watched a plane crash with a ball of fire at what was then the Cedar Rapids Municipal Airport.
Admiral Ernie Christensen, a pilot for the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, crashed his No. 4 Phantom jet after a grave error, but survived.
“The fire of that crash lit in me a flame for aviation that will never be extinguished,” said Wendell, who was sitting on his father’s shoulders as the scene unfolded.
A lifetime later, Wendell boasts what he believes is one of the world’s largest collections of model fighter airplanes complete with signatures of the pilots who flew them.
Amassing model planes and doing research started in earnest after Wendell, now 55, saw the first “Top Gun” movie at a special showing in 1986, where Admiral Jeremiah Denton spoke of his daunting experiences as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. After being shot down and held as a prisoner of war alongside others like John McCain, Denton became famous for blinking the word “torture” in Morse code during a televised interview.
While some viewers walked away from the movie thinking about Tom Cruise’s good looks and smooth moves, Wendell walked away with a reinforced appreciation for pilots and aviators he had held since childhood, when his father would bring home retired plane instruments from his job at Collins.
As the historian and former owner of a living history museum in Chicago researched the aviation hobby more, a new spark pushed Wendell to identify dozens of Iowa’s ace fighter pilots previously not well-known to the public. When he discovered Col. William Reed, the highest-scoring Iowa fighter pilot to die in the line of duty, was from Marion, he thought it was a misprint.
“I figured if there was one in my own backyard I didn’t know about, how many could there be?”
There were 40, as it turned out.
But Wendell’s research — done mostly before the internet was the primary means of research — doesn’t just sit in report compilations or books. He has 365 model planes around his home — most of which he can identify in detail with a glance.
He’ll tell you all about the F18 by the window, a model of the plane flown in “Top Gun: Maverick” this year, and signed by a retired astronaut. He’ll recite the significance of the P-38 Lightning flown by Col. Rex Barber, the World War II pilot who shot down Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese admiral who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor. He’ll glow when talking about his model P-51 signed by Brigadier General Chuck Yeager, one of the more recognized names among fighter pilots.
All were heroes he sought out to meet. His living room’s displays are only a sampling of what he has, much of which is stacked floor-to-ceiling in boxes in the basement.
To him, the collection is not a compilation of wood and paint — it’s an assimilation of values he hopes to push into the future, as 20th century history grows more distant to future generations.
“These aircraft, with their signatures, embody the traditional values that every one of these pilots and aviators represented in serving our country around the world,” Wendell said. “When they’re no longer around, that model will be there to tell their story.”
What’s more is that over the years, Wendell has managed to bring history to life by touring classrooms and bringing fighter planes to Cedar Rapids.
In 2000, he organized a ceremony honoring Reed by flying in his wingman, Ken Jernstedt, as well as a P-40 fighter like the one they flew and a B-25 bomber like the ones they accompanied in missions over China.
With the B-25, they dropped a wreath over Reed’s grave in a low pass through an Anamosa cemetery, bringing honor to the man whose name hadn’t been mentioned in more than 50 years since he had been killed in China.
Jernstedt’s eyes, by then blind, filled with tears remembering his squadron mate. Those were the moments that made it worth propagating the names of Wendell’s heroes forgotten in Iowa — the moments that made his hobby more of a passion than an obsession.
“To me, there was no greater satisfaction than being able to tell the story of someone who, otherwise, their extraordinary accomplishments wouldn’t have been known to the rest of the world,” said Wendell, explaining a mentality that applied to his former role as a features reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. “Even if that extraordinary accomplishment was only in the eyes of the few, it makes them feel good to be recognized.”
Today, one of his most treasured models is the one that Christensen crashed, signed by Christensen years later. Wendell procured the model in a tribute to his father, who sparked his passion for aviation, but it didn’t arrive in Marion before Wendell’s father died in 2011.
The collection, which went online at WendellAirandSpaceMuseum.org in 2016, is dedicated to his father.
Now, 36 years after the first “Top Gun” movie captivated audiences, he hopes the sequel resonates with younger audiences to push a mission of remembrance forward as they aspire to reach the same level of accomplishment as the legacies before them.
“This film wasn’t just connecting with people because of flying — it was connecting with people on an emotional level because of the people,” Wendell said. “These airplanes aren’t being flown by themselves, they’re being flown by people.”
He also hopes his models will find a more visible home where they can assist in that mission.
“ (Pilots) love to see the models of their own planes, because it shows that their legacy will live beyond them,” Wendell said. “When they’re no longer around, that model will be there to tell their story.”
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