ONTARIO, Ore -- A world-class collection of historic military aircraft has long flown under the radar just across the Idaho border in eastern Oregon.
The private collection of Ontario's Merle Maine isn't sitting in a museum. It's long been hiding in plain view at the Ontario Airport.
However, when Maine passed away in March, his trust made a decision to liquidate the pilot's fantastic flying machines. Some have been sold, while others have been donated.
Friends say while Maine never served in the military, his passion was war birds, and his collection is well-known.
"It's just wonderful," said fellow pilot Roger Smith. "We all enjoyed it. We just all couldn't afford it. But Merle could afford it."
Maine and Smith met where many pilots do.
"Actually it was the airport," said Smith. "We just met through flying. It's kind of a tight-knit group at this airport and almost every airport."
A PILOT'S PASSION
Maine collected and restored old military planes before he lost his battle to cancer earlier this year.
"Kind of like these car guys that are a little crazy -- he was airplanes instead of cars," Smith said.
The story goes that Maine simply flew in a plane to get to his flying lessons.
"Once he got started in this one I think it just snowballed," Smith said. "And this one lead to everything you've seen. And he just loved this airplane, loved the noise it made, and he'd fly out over the valley and everybody would know Merle went by."
However, Maine didn't stop with just one or two airplanes. His collection kept growing to include many rare fighter aifcraft, including a General Dynamics F-111 "Aardvark" fighter/bomber used by the USAF in the late 60s and early 70s.
A website listing some of Maine's military aircraft includes the following models:
- S2F-1 Tracker
- A-4 SkyHawk
- F-5D Skylancer (NASA)
- A-7D Cousair II
- F-7F Tigercat
- MIG-19 Farmer
- MIG-21F Fishbed
- MIG-23 Flogger
- T-28A Trojan
- T-33 Shooting Star
- MK-35 Vampire
- L-39C Albatros
- F-86A/L Saberjets
- F-111 Aardvark
- F-104 Starfighter
Smith says to the best of their knowledge, Maine's was the only privately owned F-111 in the country. Another highlight of the collection: Maine's WWII-era Tiger Cat, which is worth about $2 million.
"Then he just kept collecting and collecting and collecting. And then right up to the Tiger Cat was about the last one," said Smith.
However, those who knew this mild-mannered Oregonian say he wasn't just an airplane aficionado, he was a good friend.
"He was just a wonderful, wonderful guy, and a great friend, and he'd just do anything for you," Smith said. "Everybody that knew Merle loved Merle too. He was a great guy and we miss him."