In the hangar at the National Museum of WWII Aviation in Colorado Springs sits a plane with an astonishing story. It is a P-38 Lightning named “White 33.” With twin tails and sharks painted on the engines, it is a most imposing machine. Seven decades after the war, this plane, and the man who flew it, were randomly and fortuitously reunited one day in 2016 upon a visit to the Westpac Restoration hangar of the museum. 

White 33 underwent painstaking restoration under the eyes of this World War II pilot and the dedicated team at Westpac. They enjoyed having Royal around, calling him “Superman” and dubbing the fighter “Superman’s cape.”

In October 2016, with White-33 restored to flying status, Royal, then 101 years old, made a last visit to the aviation museum to see his “first love.” He boarded a chaser plane to witness his plane, from so many years ago, take to the skies once more. Family members said Royal, who had entered hospice care that month, put off his death for weeks while awaiting a last look at the P-38. On the ground after the brief return to the sky, Royal had a wide grin. “Mentally, I was flying it,” he said. He could hear the thrum of its twin engines without his hearing aids– World War II ingrained the 24-cylinder symphony permanently in his mind. He had good reason to remember the details…

Born in Colorado during WWI and raised on a ranch outside Rocky Ford, Frank Royal had an idyllic, rural childhood before it was disrupted by the Great Depression. To make ends meet, he joined an Army program for would-be fliers in 1940. When World War II erupted, Royal was sent to the southwest Pacific, flying the Bell P-39, a lethargic plane that was no match for the nimble Japanese Zero which dominated the skies over New Guinea. Royal loathed the weird flier with its car-like doors that made it nearly impossible to bail out. He said his life was saved by the latest in American technology when his unit received a fleet of new P-38s.

“It was a godsend from a pilot’s standpoint,” he said. “ You could get into scoring position and often did. In the first year we had them, we destroyed 100 enemy planes and only lost four pilots.”

His old P-39 had one 1,200-horsepower motor; the P-38 came with two 1,600-horsepower engines. It climbed like a rocket. The P-38 also had four .50-caliber machine guns and a 20 mm cannon mounted right in the nose. That horsepower and firepower gave Royal and his comrades the first plane that could really tangle with the Japanese– he got one kill and two “probables.” Royal said he fell in love with his, a plane dubbed White-33. “The first time I took off, everything worked perfectly. It flew like a Cadillac while the Airacobra [P-39] flew more like a Ford,” said Royal, who twice earned the Silver Star for heroism over the Pacific. 

But the wartime love affair had to end. On July 4, 1942 Royal and his wingman encountered a flight of Japanese Zeros. In the ensuing melee, Royal’s wingman was hit and forced to bail out. As he floated to the ground, Royal flew over, shooting down one and fending off several other Zeros. Once his wingman was safe, Royal raced for home in the treetops. 

His plane was so damaged that it was scrapped soon after he landed. In fact, a 20-millimeter cannon shell had passed completely through a propeller blade. 

Shortly after this encounter, Royal was sent to the Pentagon to plan air campaigns, and his beloved plane wound up in a scrap pit in the jungles of New Guinea, where the military put planes too worn out to haul home. The propeller tip was the only souvenir he brought back from the Southwest Pacific. (It now lies ensconced at the museum.)

Royal came to Colorado Springs after his Air Force career and settled down with a wife he married during his stint at the Pentagon. They raised five kids. 

The coincidence that brought White-33 to Colorado Springs came thanks to Bill Klaers, who runs Westpac Restorations and the National Museum of World War II Aviation. Klaers heard of the wreckage found in the New Guinea jungle and leapt at the chance to obtain it. Westpac is America’s most renowned firm for restoring World War II wreckage into flying planes. Klaers and his team took the junked plane from the jungle and into his hangar, where craftsmen painstakingly replaced every missing or rotted piece. 

“It’s not going to a wax museum,” Klaers said. “It’s going to a flying museum.”

Luck and fate intervened to reunite pilot and plane– Royal came to visit Westpac in 2015 and told Klaers he flew P-38s in the Pacific. After talking, the two realized that Royal had actually flown the plane Westpac was restoring. 

“That’s the thrill of this,” said Jim Slattery, the plane collector who paid for White-33s rebuild. “Frank was the happiest thing to happen to this whole project.”

Royal frequently visited the shop to check on White-33’s restoration. Family members say he seemed younger when he was near his warbird. The centenarian’s eyes lit up as 75-year-old memories flooded back. Waiting months for White-33’s restoration made Frank Royal defy old age. 

On November 19, 2016, the incredible World War II vet passed away, surrounded by his loving family. It is an honor to showcase his plane, their story, and the legacy of the Greatest Generation, without whom, we’d live in a very different world.

Additional Sources:

Air Force Times

Colorado Springs Gazette

The Denver Post