On the wings of ‘The Proud Bird’

Lou Lenart’s historic Vought F4U Corsair fighter, the one he flew as a US Marine pilot in World War II, was part of the collection of vintage aircraft on the grounds of this unique restaurant.

VISITORS CAN have a seat in the restaurant patio and have a close-up view of many of the old planes. (photo credit: GEORGE MEDOVOY)
VISITORS CAN have a seat in the restaurant patio and have a close-up view of many of the old planes.
(photo credit: GEORGE MEDOVOY)
LOS ANGELES – I couldn’t believe my eyes as I drove into the parking lot of The Proud Bird restaurant on the edge of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
I knew that Lou Lenart’s historic Vought F4U Corsair fighter – the one he flew as a US Marine pilot in World War II – was part of the magnificent collection of vintage aircraft on the grounds of this unique restaurant. But I had no idea it would be one of the first planes you see as you drive through the front gate.
Sure enough, there it was, staring at me in all its historic glory – the life-size, fiberglass replica of the Corsair with his name printed in bold, white letters under the cockpit: CAPT LOU LENART USMC.
A nearby monument is dedicated to Lenart “and all US Marine Corps and Navy pilots” who flew the Corsair and describes his important actions in Israel’s War of Independence.
Lenart died on July 20, 2015 at his home in Ra’anana at the age of 94. After serving in the Marine Corps, he led the fledgling Israeli Air Force – all four planes of it – in the crucial air battle that saved Tel Aviv from an Egyptian invasion during the war.
There’s little doubt that without his efforts and that of the other swashbuckling pilots, the Egyptian army – which was only about 25 kilometers from Tel Aviv – would have succeeded in capturing the city and perhaps sealing the young nation’s fate. Among these young pilots was Ezer Weizmann, who eventually became Israel’s seventh president in 1993.
Lenart and his buddies were at a clear disadvantage because they were not flying anything like the powerful Corsair. Instead, they had to take to the skies in what could best be described as shabby versions of Czech-built German Messerschmitt Bf 109, which had been clandestinely ferried to Israel.
The gutsy US Marine was one of a number of foreign fighters, many of them US military veterans, who risked everything as members of a special unit called “Mahal.”
Lenart’s Corsair is among the many vintage aircraft – most of them fiberglass replicas – at The Proud Bird, where you can enjoy a delicious meal, have a drink at the bar and watch big passenger jets roaring in overhead as they land at LAX.
In fact, just as I was photographing some of the old airplanes, a big Delta Airlines jet passed over a parked Russian MIG – the real thing, not a copy, with big red stars emblazoned on its side.
The tables inside the restaurant have earphones to listen to ground controllers, but if you prefer the loud ringing of approaching jets, you can have your meal or a drink at a table in the Proud Bird’s garden area, where many of the old planes are parked.
The Proud Bird is part of Specialty Restaurants Corporation, which was opened in 1967 by David C. Tallichet Jr., a World War II B-17 bomber pilot, who flew missions over Nazi-occupied Europe as part of the US 100th bomb group, known as the “Bloody 100th” because it had lost so many aircraft. His son, John D. Tallichet, is the CEO of the company, which has 21 restaurants across the country.
The younger Tallichet recalled that his father and Lenart talked many times and that the Marine “was always very proud of [his Corsair]... and always wanted to make sure we were doing our best to take care of that plane and keep it painted and well-maintained.”
In 1938, the restaurant founder’s sister, Margaret, married the Academy Award-winning Jewish movie director William Wyler, who produced The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, the wartime documentary about the B-17.
Many years later, Wyler’s daughter, Catherine, produced a feature film about the B-17 called Memphis Belle. The elder Tallichet flew the B-17 he owned over the Atlantic to England to be used in the movie and even piloted the plane in the film itself.
“He got a chance to kind of relive his youth doing that,” said his son, adding that The Proud Bird was his father’s way of telling the important story of military and commercial aviation, particularly the story of LAX.
“My father was always very fascinated by LAX and the planes flying over,” he said, “and having the excitement of the planes being so close that he ended up getting a location... at the airport that gave the guests the same type of feeling he had enjoyed.”
Tallichet’s goal after the war, said his son, was to get a B-17, and he ended up leasing one from the air force until he could eventually buy one.
He had a “love affair” with that plane and was flying it until six months before he died, he said.
Today, this same B-17 is still flying, visiting air shows around the country.
The aircraft experience at The Proud Bird is made up of a treasure- trove of historic aircraft-related photographs that line the restaurant’s interior walls.
And among the many life-size aircraft replicas outside the dining room that caught my eye were the North American P-51 Mustang flown by the African-American Tuskegee Airmen, a British Royal Air Force Supermarine Spitfire, a World War I German Fokker D.VII, a Bell X-1 – the first aircraft to break the sound barrier – and a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, which belonged to World War II ace Richard Bong.
In a classic slice of wartime romance, a photograph of Bong’s fiancée, Marge, is pasted onto the side of the P-38.
The fascinating trail of historic airplanes and photographs at The Proud Bird is partly owed to aircraft historian, writer and movie advisor Bruce Orriss, a Northrop Grumman engineer who has spent a lifetime collecting old aircraft as well as historic airplane photos.
Orriss met David C. Tallichet Jr. in the late 1970s. They both shared an interest in collecting old airplanes.
Orriss decorated the walls of The Proud Bird with his many historic photographs and even contributed some of his own planes to the restaurant, including a Douglas DC-3 with Western Airlines and US Mail markings on it, a Twin Beechcraft C-45 used in the Stephen Spielberg movie 1941 and an A-4 Blue Angels jet, all of which are originals, not fiberglass replicas.
Among the many photographs in the restaurant is one of “Lt.
David Tallichet” standing with a replacement crew next to a B-17, as well as moments in Israel’s War of Independence assembled from photos in Lou Lenart’s collection.
The author of the book When Hollywood Ruled the Skies, Orriss first started working as a film adviser in 1985, consulting on the Warner Brothers film Swing Shift about women working on World War II aircraft assembly lines starring Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell and Christine Lahti.
For this film, Orriss helped line up a total of 32 T-6 training planes from a Florida airplane graveyard and joked that he was “paid in airplanes” after the film – the very same T-6 training planes themselves, which were disassembled so that the actors would appear to be building them for the war effort.
In a kind of Israeli “postscript” to the B-17 story, Orriss also owns a B-17 and is restoring it for the Israeli Air Force museum.
“Israel had three B-17s in 1948,” he said, “and they acquired them clandestinely as cargo airplanes with the intention to use them as bombers.
“But to get them out of the United States, they said ‘Oh, we’re going to use them for cargo.’ They got the three out and managed to get them to Czechoslovakia and then down to Israel.”
But the fourth bomber didn’t quite make it because the US government had figured out what was going on. So the Israelis got as far as Canada, where the authorities “grabbed them and put them in jail temporarily.”
The Canadians, according to Orriss, said “OK, we’re going to let you go, but you got to promise to turn around and go back to the United States.”
Once in the air, the Israeli pilots did turn around – but not in the direction of the US Instead, they headed out across the Atlantic and managed to get all the way to Portugal, where the Portuguese stopped them and then let them go – but without the B-17.
Israel retired its B-17s in the early 1960s, two being turned into scrap and the third sent to England for interior scenes in the Steve McQueen movie, The War Lover.
“The Israeli Air Force museum had been looking for a B-17,” Orriss said, “and they found out I had one. So we’ve been rebuilding it ever since and hope to be finished with it by next year.”
Orriss first saw this B-17 in 1966 at the old Fox movie studios on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles while it was being used for the Twelve O’clock High TV series. Back in 1949, it had also appeared in a feature film of the same name starring Gregory Peck.
By the mid-1970s, 20th Century Fox auctioned the plane off, and it ended up decorating a bar in Colorado, where Orriss later purchased it from the bar owner.
“When I think about it,” Orriss said, “it’s a crazy story because I saw that airplane when I was 18, and I have stayed in touch with it all these years. It’s like a personal relationship with the airplane.”
And all those wonderful, other old airplanes at The Proud Bird – they’re also the stuff out of which many lasting, personal relationships are indeed made.