Andrew Osborn









The Independent, 26th July 2005 12:52

By Andrew Osborn

Regarded as a death-trap by American and British forces, the Brewster Buffalo was revered in Finland for its role in their fight against Soviet forces. Now they are demanding that the last surviving plane comes home from the US.

In a museum hangar not far from Helsinki airport, the occasional schoolchild will stop and stare at a rather pitiful pile of Second World War-era aircraft parts. To the untrained eye, the exhibit  - a tailfin, a windshield, a canopy, and a couple of wheels - is one of the less impressive in Finland"s most prestigious aviation museum. This, though, is all that remains of the pride of the country's wartime air force " the American-built Brewster Buffalo fighter.

The stubby-nosed plane was generally regarded as a flying liability. Among aviation specialists around the world, it is viewed with undisguised disdain.

Overweight and underpowered, it has been described as the world's worst fighter. But in Finland, the only theatre of war where it enjoyed any success, the plane is an object of adoration, a symbol of national independence, a crucial part of its 20th-century history and a powerful reminder of underdog resistance against a far more powerful enemy, the Soviet Union. But, sadly for Finland, the only surviving example of the plane sits thousands of miles away in a Florida aviation museum, after it was pulled from the icy waters of a Russian lake in 1998. And that has become the source of growing resentment and a potential diplomatic row.

To the Finns' chagrin, the plane is about to be reassembled and restored in America, a process that will take about a year, before going on display there. In Finland, where many believe the nation has been robbed of its heritage, there is acute melancholy at the prospect.

"The real owner is the Finnish state," Sten Olof Niemenen, curator of Helsinki"s Aviation Museum, told The Independent. "Finland bought the planes from the US in 1939 and the plane should be returned to its correct owner.

"It should be here. We even have a very nice spot for it. It was as important to us as the Hawker Hurricane was for the British."

Mr Niemenen says the plane is not just an object of nostalgia and interest for aviation anoraks, but is a subject that captures the imagination of the entire nation. "It's pretty well known. Anyone who knows anything about the war knows about it and pictures of it feature in all our history books."

Military officials, aviation buffs, the media and the public are all keen for the government to persuade Washington to hand over the Brewster.

Colonel Jarmo Lindberg, head of the Lapland Air Command, agrees. "Many air force officers, active and retired, would like to see it back here," he says. "World War Two veterans and many other people feel very strongly about this."

The Finns' struggle to reclaim what they see as their national property is eminently understandable. After all, they were the only nation that wanted the fighter in the first place. During the Second World War the American Navy, which originally ordered the plane from the US Brewster company, came to view the fighter as a death trap and a "disaster".

A US Air Force commander involved in the Battle of Midway in the Pacific Ocean in 1942, during which around half a contingent of Brewsters was shot down by the Japanese, observed that "any commander who orders a pilot out for combat in an F2A-3 [a version of the Brewster] should consider the pilot as lost before leaving the ground".

The Brewster, in 1935, was simply unable to hold its own against the Japanese Zero Fighter, and suffered the ignominy of being withdrawn and replaced with a superior plane - the Grumman Wildcat.

The British, who also received a batch of Brewsters at the beginning of the war, swiftly reached the same conclusion, deeming them a lost cause for Europe's air war.

But the Finns gave the much-maligned plane a chance, buying 44 in 1939. What followed has entered Finnish military lore.

The Finns fought a bloody winter war against the USSR from 1939-40 which ended in the concession of large chunks of territory. The Second World War - called the Continuation War in Finland - was seen as revenge for that earlier conflict: a battle in which Finland felt it had no choice but to ally itself with Germany or face annihilation by the Soviet Union.

In the struggle with Moscow, the Brewster, to general astonishment elsewhere in the world, played a starring role. In fact Finnish pilots notched up one of the best kill-loss ratios of any Second World War fighter. The Brewster's "kills" allowed Finland to hold out against Stalin, making its last flight on 25 June 1942.

At the controls for that final trip was Lieutenant Lauri Pekuri, a Finnish fighter ace, credited with shooting down more than 10 Soviet planes in a Brewster. The final mission saw it involved in a dogfight with an adversary believed to be either a Russian-piloted Hurricane or a MIG-3.

Pekuri claimed to have shot down the Russian fighter but to have sustained serious mechanical damage himself.

The only option was to ditch the plane in the icy waters of a lake in Karelia " the slice of territory ceded by Finland in the winter war and today part of Russia. Pekuri kicked off his boots, swam to shore and rejoined his compatriots going on to fly more missions against the Russians in ME-109s. The heyday of the Brewster, glorious and inexplicably successful, was over.

The legend, however, would not be forgotten. More than 50 years later, a group of aviation treasure hunters led by a former US Marine flight engineer called Gary Villiard found Pekuri's BW-372 after scouring the globe for an example of the type. The plane was raised to the surface. But its transportation to the US was greeted as a disaster in Helsinki.

In the race to recover a Brewster, the Americans had outflanked their Finnish counterparts, who had spent much of the 1970s and 1980s searching for the mythical fighter. Though riddled with bullets, the plane was in superb condition, having been well preserved by the lake's water which turned to ice for nine months of the year. There were scarcely any signs of rust: it was in almost perfect nick. Remarkably its tyres, manufactured by Nokia - then a paper, rubber and cables conglomerate - were still inflated. But in the armoured back of the pilot's seat a 30-calibre round was lodged. The plane had been hit no less than 13 times.

The Finnish Air Force's insignia - a blue Swastika on a blue background - had survived, as had the instrument panel and its machine guns. What followed, according to those who lost out, was a tale of backhanders, intrigue, betrayal and threats common to post-Soviet Russia. "There was a lot of, how can I put it, cheating involved," says Helsinki Aviation Museum's Mr Niemenen.

Rival aviation treasure hunters tried to "induce" the Russians to allow the plane to be flown out of the country. Eventually it was: first to Ireland and then last year to America"s National Museum of Aviation in Pensacola, Florida, which had long wanted a Brewster because of its significance as the US's first all-metal monoplane fighter.

It is not known how much was paid to transport the plane to the US, but it is speculated that the figure was more than $1m. The successful treasure hunter - Mr Villiard - exchanged the rare plane with the US Navy for three modern-day damaged P-3 Orion anti-submarine planes, which he could sell to recoup his expenses. Defeated by dirty tricks and the power of the dollar, the Finns are simmering still.

In Florida, Captain Robert Rasmussen, Director of the Naval Aviation Museum, says he has some sympathy with the Finns. When asked whether he might even consider loaning the plane to the Finns he told The Independent: "I would certainly be sympathetic to any request because I understand how important this aircraft is to them. But that is for someone to decide above my pay-grade. It would be for the Navy to decide, if not someone higher.

"It"s a one-of-a-kind aircraft in terms of historic significance, partly because it was attached to the Finnish air force and was flown by a well- known Finnish ace. It crashed while it was being flown by a Finnish gentleman who had knocked out many a Russian aircraft."

In a mark of respect to the Finns the Brewster will retain its original Finnish colours. "Our intention is to put it together again and preserve it." says Captain Rasmussen. "We will have it essentially as it was when it was brought out of the lake. We will leave the battle damage and the crash damage and repair anything else and any deterioration that has happened since it came out of the water, which is not very much."

However he stresses that the Brewster also has significance for America. "While it was not very successful with us, it was an aircraft that was sort of a milestone in fighter aviation, because it was the first monoplane the Navy every bought and it led directly to the development of the Grumman Wildcat."

In Helsinki, Mr Niemenen admits his country opted to scrap its own surviving examples of the Brewster after the war in a desperate rush for metal. "It was a question of recycling," he says. "Of turning planes into frying pans " like you did in Britain."

Though he remains sceptical about his country's chances of reclaiming the Brewster, he believes it might be possible if enough cash could be raised. "If we could make them an offer they couldn"t refuse we might have a chance, but unfortunately we don"t have the kind of lottery money you have in the UK."

Before he died in 1999, an apparently dumbfounded and aged Lft Pekuri was handed back the shot glass, flask and boots he had left behind as he escaped the waterlogged cabin all those decades ago. It is exactly that spirit of restitution that Finns are hoping to rekindle. As its most devoted afficianados constantly lament, all they want is to bring back the Brewster Buffalo to the only place its was ever really loved.

Col Lindberg points out: "It"s a historical footnote in US aviation." For the Finns however, it remains a heroic fighting machine. Overweight and underpowered. But a lasting source of Finnish pride.