1931 Fleet Model 8
The Story of
The “Flying McConnells” were three brothers from the American heartland who gained fame in the air over the Pacific during WWII. Fred, Edwin, and Tom all volunteered for duty as Aviation Cadets in 1942 and entered service on the same day. Their mother pinned on their wings after completing pilot training and they headed off to war together in the Pacific.
Anna McConnell pinning the pilot’s wings on her three sons at Luke AFB in early 1943.
Left to right: Thomas, Fred and Edwin McConnell
The brothers were a media sensation, billed as “Three of a Kind”. All became B-24 pilots and joined the same squadron in the South Pacific theatre, where they all went into action on the same day. Tragically, the youngest, Thomas, was killed at age 20 on his third mission flying out of Guadalcanal. Fred, the oldest son, survived 61 missions. He became a military flight instructor after he returned home. Edwin flew 56 missions, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and stayed in the Air Force Reserve until 1981.
The love of flying never left Fred, and he bought a blue and yellow 1931 Fleet Model 8 biplane soon after returning home. In October 1945 he and his 22-year-old wife, Mary, were traveling to their new base assignment in the biplane. Mary, known as “Blondie” was in the front cockpit holding the linens for their new home. Flying low to avoid weather, the aircraft hit a high-tension wire. The aircraft was destroyed and Fred was killed instantly at the age of 27.
Capt. Fred J. McConnell in the cockpit of an Air Corps
P-51 Mustang, along with his pet lion cub.
Mary Louis McConnell. She was affectionately known as “Blondie.”
Mary was distraught. She never claimed the wreckage and left the plane in the field. It stayed there for the next 37 years...
McConnell Air Force Base
After the war, many Army installations changed the name of the base to honor those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice during WWII. In Wichita, the town searched for an appropriate honoree, and decided on the "Three of a Kind" McConnell Brothers. They grew up in Wichita and had gained some notoriety because of their war record and sacrifice.
On April 12, 1954, Wichita AFB, Kansas, was rechristened "McConnell Air Force Base". This was in honor of Thomas and Fred McConnell. Edwin was not included due to the policy against naming a base after a living person. At a rededication ceremony on June 14, 1999, Edwin's name was added.
McConnell AFB served throughout WWII as a base for the B-29 Superfortress. Boeing built hundreds at their plant adjacent to the base. Later, B-47 bombers flew under the Strategic Air Command from McConnell. Today, the base serves a variety of USAF and military uses, including airlift and tanker missions.
Jim Bumgarner was a C-47 flight engineer during the Korean War. He became an expert mechanic and helped start the aviation maintenance training program at the University of Central Missouri.
In the early 1980's someone casually mentioned some abandoned airplane parts in a field in Kansas. Jim, curious as ever, couldn’t resist and drove to the field. He found parts hanging in the neighbor’s shed, and the baggage compartment door at a local high school. The fuselage aft of the cockpit had become an ornamental windmill in the garden of the farmer. The center fuselage section was now a chicken coup.
Jim knew the plane was rare and valuable. He made a deal with the farmer and loaded all the parts he could scrounge into his pickup truck. He snapped a straight line on his shop floor and started the painstaking process of re-building the plane from the ground up. Much had to be fabricated. Pictures and drawings aided in the process. Several of his students pitched in and helped.
Jim Bumgarner flying the Fleet at an Antique Airplane Association Fly-In.
The fleet flies again
Finally, in 1995, fifty years after the crash, Jim piloted the Fleet back into the sky. He flew the plane regularly to airshows and aviation events. But the march of time has caught up with Jim. By 2022, now 92 years old, Jim realized he needed to get the plane to someone who will care for and keep the plane flying and the memory of the “Flying McConnells” alive.
Keeping the plane going on an educator’s salary was always a challenge. But Jim never wavered in his dedication to the plane and its history. The best he could do was to keep it in a hangar with an open door, exposing it to the elements.
Jim Bumgarner, a spry 92 years old, is shown with the Fleet in June, 2022.
The fleet finds a new home
After some consideration, Jim chose to send the plane in June, 2022 to the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society based in Midlothian, TX. It is receiving much needed maintenance and restoration. This work will allow the plane to be preserved and on display for future generations as a tribute to the Flying McConnell Brothers, all our veterans, and to Jim Bumgarner.
As a part of the restoration process, the plane has gained a new name… “Three of a Kind”. New artwork (shown above) will be added to help identify the plane with the McConnell Brothers and bring attention to their sacrifices.
The Fleet is shown in its new home at Hangar Three in Texas. It is receiving much needed maintenance and restoration to keep it flying far into the future.
The last flying fleet model 8
This rare vintage aircraft is the last flying Fleet Model 8 left in the world. There is only one other Model 8 known to exist, and it is hanging from the rafters of a museum in upstate New York, close to the original Fleet factory.
You can help HAPS keep the Fleet flying, and honor our veterans, the McConnell Brothers and Jim Bumgarner, by donating today.