Airplane Fantasies

Carl Robinette

Thu August 28, 2014 10:15am

He fell in love with the airplane as a boy, 60 or so years ago. While his dad worked at the local hangar in Michigan, Dr. Dave VandenBerg spent his boyhood playing in an old broken down SNJ Navy airplane that had been abandoned behind the hangar.
Later, after college, VandenBerg started flying jets for the United States Navy. He served for seven years, piloting a single-seat attack bomber off the USS Constellation during Vietnam.
VandenBerg left active duty to attend medical school, but remained in the Navy Reserve and flew on weekends as a Navy Weekend Warrior. When he received his medical degree VandenBerg returned to service as a Navy doctor. 
While practicing medicine in the Navy he found out about a bunch of airplane parts that were available at Brown field in Otay Mesa through a well-known parts collector. He realized the parts were from none other than an SNJ Navy trainer plane like the one behind the hangar in Michigan.
That was in 1980 and he spent the next 20 years collecting parts.  
“Right away, I knew that I wanted to rebuild an SNJ,” VandenBerg said. “I collected wings, tails, landing gear, cockpits, canopies, everything you can imagine. Every nut, screw and turnbuckle.”
Most people collect stamps or comic books. VandenBerg collects spare parts and then turns them into a plane that he flies 30 years later.
About 10 years ago he started assembling the plane with the help of project manager Dave Bieber of Paladin Aviation at Brown Field. Then, after years of hard work and various inspections, certifications and approvals, the plane took its first flight this year.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful plane. It’s almost indescribable how beautiful it is, in my opinion,” VandenBerg said.
The judges shared the same opinion at the 2014 EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., the Super Bowl of airshows for plane hobbyists like VandenBerg. He and his North American SNJ-4 Texan took home four awards from Oshkosh including the prestigious Gold Wrench award.  
“The dedication and the sacrifices, the discouragement and the triumphs, all over the years as we’re trying to accomplish these lifelong goals can be significant,” VandenBerg said. “When you have a dream like that, keeping your eye on that end dream and achieving it is very rewarding.”
But if you are going to embark on a 30-year journey like his, VandenBerg said you better marry the right person who is willing to support you.  He and his wife Julie have been married 15 years and he is the father of six children.
VandenBerg is still a doctor and practices out of Scripps Chula Vista with a medical group comprised mostly of other Navy doctors.
Next he’ll be taking the plane to the Reno Air Races National Championship in September.  Vandenberg said he will eventually find a good home for the plane, but for now is going to enjoy the ride.
If you see a yellow airplane with red markings fly overhead that looks like it might be a World War II era Navy plane, there is a good chance it’s Dave VandenBerg living out his boyhood fantasy that lasted half a century.
“I spent many, many happy afternoons in that old abandoned wrecked plane, playing airplane,” VandenBerg said.  “And that’s where I think I started my love of flying.  I’ve always loved that plane since that time.  I’ve always thought it was one of the most beautiful planes.”