Passion for airplanes fuels hobby

Published 12:14 pm Saturday, November 10, 2012


Stephen St. Onge holds his hand-built model of a P-51 Mustang that the United States used during World War II. On the table, from left, are Germany’s ME-262 Messerschmitt and the U.K.’s Supermarine Spitfire. These and several more that St. Onge built are on display at the Southampton County Courthouse. -- STEPHEN H. COWLES/TIDEWATER NEWS

COURTLAND—Stephen St. Onge’s first word as a child was “airplane.” And that early love for aircraft has remained a lifelong passion.

The Franklin-area man is sharing that passion by displaying his handmade collection of World War II-era model airplanes in the Clerk of Courts Office at the Southampton County Courthouse. Each of the planes, built on a 1:48 scale, has a story to tell, and St. Onge can tell them with accuracy and enthusiasm.

“I love aviation history,” said the 57-year-old, who doesn’t believe in glorifying war. He has a catalog devoted to airplanes and scours specialty magazines that feature obscure facts.

A few examples:

* People don’t know that Charles Lindberg was the only non-military aviator who shot down a Japanese fighter while working on ways to create a better engine for P-38 Lightnings. Through research he increased the range almost double than what engineers could run.

* Willy Messerschmitt was in favor with the German high command, which allowed him the advantage in producing the first jets, ME-262s, for the Nazis.

“I love to read about that,” said St. Onge. “Simple twists of fate that seal somebody else’s fate.”

He really credits his father for the interest from the start.

The family grew up outside Oceana Naval Base in Virginia Beach, and got the boy interested in model planes.

“My dad was the biggest influence on me,” he said. “He just got me started. I would get 50 cents allowance each week, and could buy a kit for exactly 49 cents.”

“By the time I was 8 or 9 years old, I had 100 in my room,” St. Onge added. “I played with them ‘till they fell apart.”

Not long after, though, an interest in girls and driving overtook model planes.

Still, his career path was based on aviation, and he served in the Air Force from 1974-1978. Following that, St. Onge built real jet engines.

“I built engines for F-14’s in Norfolk Naval Air Station from 1984 to 1996,” he said. “Norfolk engines are coveted. I found out many years later that pilots would know those engines came in, they’d mark them for their own.”

As for owning and flying a plane, the expense is prohibitive. A gift from his wife has given him opportunities to fly, such as taking a P-51 Mustang in the air five year ago.

Around 2007 to 2008, St. Onge took up the model airplane hobby again.

“All planes are as accurate as I can make them. There’s no artistic license, and I pay attention to detail,” he said.

Painting interiors is one such example, though putting in figurines is one step too far.

When he and his wife, Katherine, looked for a new place to live for retirement, they discovered Courtland, and brought everything – including the model planes.

Within arm’s reach of his living room workbench are shelves of his creations. There are 144, ranging from the Wright Brother’s first workable plane to a B-17, which he calls his “pride and joy.”

“They’re all like children to me,” said St. Onge.