How one man built a collection of historic military planes in St. Louis
By ERIN HEFFERNAN | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: December 28, 2017
ST. LOUIS (Tribune News Service) — The Bissell Auto & Body truck repair shop has been a mystery for drivers through St. Louis for years. The phone rings in the nondescript garage business almost every day with someone looking for answers.
“They’re constantly calling about the planes,” said owner Dan Bissell.
Behind the beige building at 3000 Chouteau Avenue, noses from a collection of 26 warbird airplanes and helicopters from the U.S. and Russian military can be spotted from the busy road.
They’re part of Bissell’s private collection of military planes dating back to the 1950s. But they tend to stick out in the industrial lot in urban St. Louis.
Bissell said so many people drive down a side road to get a look behind the building at the planes that he became concerned about trespassing and set up security cameras. Pilots who spotted the collection from the sky have even stopped in to ask about the mysterious planes.
The answer? It’s a hobby.
Bissell bought most of the collection in varying states of repair over 25 years from government auctions and — in most cases — saved them from the scrap yard by bidding against recyclers.
“We know it’s not the typical hobby,” said Bissell’s wife, lawyer Alex Bissell. “But he’s been able to save planes where there really aren’t that many left in the world now, but now we’ve got them here.”
Dan Bissell had war plane posters and an airplane ID book in his childhood bedroom growing up in Town and Country.
“He can tell you any kind of commercial jet or military jet just from the silhouette in the sky,” said Alex Bissell. “You know, I think people are just wired a certain way, and he’s been wired towards airplanes his whole life.”
Dan Bissell theorizes that the fascination comes from a few different places: His grandfather and father were wartime pilots in WWI and WWII, respectively. But Bissell also has had a mechanical mind since he was a child, working in the same truck repair shop he owns today. The business has been in his family since the 1940s.
As a boy, Bissell had a collection of remote-control airplanes, including complicated models that ran on actual fuel, that he’d spend hours flying.
When he became an adult he set his sights on the real thing, starting by collecting engines from military planes.
”I guess it just sort of escalated from there,” he said.
There was only one place for Bissell to go to take his airplane fascination to the next level: the military plane boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base outside Tucson, Ariz.
Today the base houses more than 4,400 planes in its military plane graveyard.
Visits to the place inspired Bissell to look into government auctions at which they sold off decommissioned planes by the pound for their metal content.
In the early 1990s, Bissell made his first major purchase: a massive F-105 Thunderchief that was used for training during the Vietnam War. Its sides are covered with patches where pilots practiced repairing the aircraft in case of an emergency.
For the next decade, Bissell went on buying sprees, quickly creating an airplane boneyard of his own, including a B-52, an F-86, a T-33 and a collection of the MiGs that were a staple of the Russian and Soviet air force. Those he buys overseas and has delivered in shipping containers.
”It’s kind of amazing that they just let you buy this stuff,” he said standing next to a Russian MiG in a garage where he keeps a few additional planes. “I mean, I’m pretty sure that if you sat in that ejection seat it could send you through the ceiling.”
The planes in Bissell’s collection cost between $10,000 and $75,000, but sometimes getting a plane to St. Louis is more than the cost of the plane itself. Getting a warbird shipped across the country can run between $15,000 and $30,000, Bissell said.
“They are extremely difficult to transport,” he said. “It’s not easy to move a plane that can’t fly.”
And it doesn’t always go well. In one case, a shipped plane headed for Bissell’s collection lost a chunk from a wing when it hit a bridge in transport, he said.
But, he said, the image of a new plane arriving and getting lifted into his yard by a crane is thrilling.
Bissell said government sales of full military planes slowed after the 9/11 attacks, when the Defense Department began to sell more equipment in pieces or scrap to prevent technology from getting into the wrong hands.
Still, Bissell is a natural collector — he also owns 45 motorcycles and has a warehouse full of items he can’t bring himself to give away — and still hopes to grow his collection from buying parts and more planes from other collectors.
“I have a few I have my eyes on now,” he said.
The Bissells said their 19-year-old son who attended Fontbonne University had plans to fix up the planes and use them in an event space.
“It would be nice to put them somewhere where people could really appreciate the history,” Alex Bissell said.
But Dan Bissell also still holds on to the idea of creating a museum with his collection.
“I have plans in my mind of what a museum would look like,” he said. “That would be the dream.”
But for now, the planes remain another urban oddity of St. Louis that the keep cars turning down a side street and the calls coming in to the small truck repair shop on Chouteau Avenue.
©2017 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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