Unusual Arden Park estate sale a bit up in the air -- with a WWII-era airplane

By EDWARD ORTIZ | The Sacramento Bee | Published: February 3, 2013

Tucked away among the streets of Sacramento's Arden Park neighborhood sits a modest ranchette – with a curiosity in its backyard.

Next to a pool overrun with algae and thousands of minnows is a large shed. Inside sits a World War II-era airplane.

The plane – one of two on the property – proves there are no limits to what can be found in someone's backyard.

The WWII-era Taylorcraft L-2 – dubbed the "Grasshopper" – is painted the standard Army olive drab, and emblazoned with a white star. It's being offered as part of an estate sale, with an asking price of $22,000.

So what are two planes doing in the McMansion-friendly subdivision of Arden Arcade?

Blame it on the late William G. Simmons Jr. and his obsession with building and restoring planes.

"He had an attachment to the planes and didn't want to get rid of them," said Stephen Young, Simmons' brother-in-law.

For Simmons and his planes, the early 1980s were something of a terminus.

Simmons bought the L-2 as a basket case in 1962 and set about fully restoring it. By today's standards the plane is a primitive version of a Piper Cub – a two-seater with no heat, no frills.

The plane was developed for the U.S. Army Air Forces by the Taylorcraft Aviation Co. during the war. The plane was employed in much the same way as observation balloons were used in France during World War I – as a spotter of enemy troops and supplies and for directing artillery fire. It was neither speedy (top speed: 93 mph) nor high-flying (flight ceiling: 10,000 feet).

Simmons flew it at a 1972 air show in Merced, taking first place in the non-fighter military-class category, Young said.

Young went up in the plane three times with Simmons. One of those was a treetop-skimming jaunt through the Sierra foothills.

"For me, it was not that thrilling," said Young, who got most of his thrills as a former motorcycle racer – including two broken legs. "But when we got inside those rolling hills – you really began to feel that speed sensation."

In the 1980s. Simmons developed high blood pressure, which precluded him from renewing his pilot's license. He never flew again, and the planes have been in his back yard ever since.

Simmons died in the fall of 2012 and his wife died a few months later, prompting the estate sale.

Several individuals at the sale expressed interest in the L-2. One of those is Sacramentan Phil Stubblefield, an Amtrak train conductor on the Sacramento-to-Oakland run.

Stubblefield said he doesn't usually come across old airplanes in a suburban neighborhood; he calls them more of a "barn find."

"It's pretty darn rare to find one of these in a backyard. You're more apt to find something like a 1965 Ferrari here," Stubblefield said.

"And to find a 1943 aircraft anyplace? That's very rare, except maybe in deepest darkest South America on some dirty airstrip."

Nonetheless, Stubblefield was not crazy about the idea of spending $22,000 on a plane that has not been flown since Ronald Reagan was president.

By the end of the estate sale Saturday, more than 10 individuals had stepped forward seeking information about possibly purchasing the plane, said Gary Schiff, head of Schiff Estate Services, the company handling the sale.

Simmons' other plane was an experimental model, which has never been flown and which did not attract the same sales interest as the L-2.

In his more than 15 years in the estate sales business, Schiff has never sold a plane.

"I've had a lot of cars and motorcycles, but never had a plane – any kind of plane," Schiff said. "Everyone needs a car; not many people need a plane."

Then again, an estate sale is more about what people want than what they need.

So what is the most unusual thing Schiff ever sold before tackling the airplane sale?

"That would be a sword from the Mexican American War, from around 1842," said Schiff. "It was a presentation sword to honor a soldier that had boarded a Mexican vessel and captured it."

That item eventually ended up being listed in a historical auction. The fetching price: $100,000.

Call the Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.


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