When Greg Herrick, who collects antique airplanes, wanted to restore a 1937 Fairchild aircraft, he struggled to get ahold of the technical drawings for the plane.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which stores the information, told him it couldn't release the records, claiming that they contained trade secrets.
Herrick, who owns the Golden Wings Museum at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport, which houses nearly 30 vintage airplanes dating back to the "Golden Age of Aviation" between the two world wars, viewed it as a challenge.
Fifteen years later, following a lawsuit that he brought against the FAA which eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Herrick obtained the documents.
More recently, Herrick, who lives in Minneapolis, helped write a related amendment to the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act of 2012, which Congress passed last month.
Dubbed "The Herrick Amendment," the federal legislation orders the FAA to keep the technical documents for more than 1,200 different types of historic aircraft and to make the information available to the public for non-commercial uses, he explained.
It's good news to aviation history buffs.
Previously, even though only a handful of the original manufacturers are still around, the blueprints for many vintage airplanes were kept under wraps or even destroyed.
"Now we can get down to the last screw and know it's right," which is safer, too, said Herrick from his hangar last week, with the sound of airplanes flying overhead.
But the availability of the information goes beyond individual restoration projects.
"These drawings are the DNA of the development of aviation and aircraft," said Herrick, who is also the president of the Aviation Foundation of America.
A rich history
In the Blaine hangar, Herrick keeps the country's oldest flying airliner, as well as NASA's first aircraft, a flying car and the original airport shuttle bus, among other antiques.
Even though the aircraft date to the same era, they come in all shapes and styles.
The 1928 Stinson Detroiter that Charles Lindbergh piloted at one point was the world's first diesel-powered aircraft. It still has clumps of grass on it from a rough landing, and the cabin still smells like diesel fuel, Herrick said.
Amelia Earhart also had a history with some of Herrick's "ships," as he calls them.
Part of the fun for Herrick comes from doing the digging to piece together the stories behind the aircraft.
"It's so fun to go back in history and find out why a plane was developed, how it was used, who owned it, and how it fit into their lives," he said. "It's a Sherlock Holmes-type of mission."
One tricky undertaking has even led him to a remote Alaska lake, where a rare airplane is buried upside-down in layer upon layer of glacial silt.
Whatever the nature of his mission, it always comes down to the fact that "I love history and I want to do what I can to keep these planes flying," he said.
A serious shortage
Sometimes his quests can require finding ways around a problem.
When Herrick couldn't get the drawings for the hard-to-find propellers of a Ford Trimotor, for example, he turned to the Germany-based company, MT-Propeller. It agreed to manufacture replicas of the specialty propellers using digital scans from a part on one of Herrick's airplanes.
It took a decade, but the finished product should be arriving any day now. "Persistence is the key to success in many endeavors," he said. "I don't like to fail."
Rich Hornbeck of Bowdoinham, Maine, who helped with some of the legwork on the project, said it goes to show that "When [Herrick] latches onto something, he's like a pit bull and nothing shakes him loose. ... Others would've lost interest or been discouraged."
The 40-year veteran pilot, who once spent five years hunting for a certain type of propeller, can relate: "It's part of our history, and so we want to preserve that," Hornbeck said, adding, "We learn from the past."
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.