Flying High with Cardboard WINGS!
By Kurt Kuersteiner (© 2004 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine
For many years, I avoided collecting pre-1960 cards because I thought any of the popular sets that old were bound to be too hard or too expensive to piece together. But then I stumbled across some old WINGS cards (TOPPS, 1954) and I happily realized I was wrong.
It was a sister-in-law's sister who introduced them to me. She bought a shoe box full of them at a garage sale, and cut up a bunch to use in various art projects. She gave me several dozen leftovers, and I immediately set out to find more. I had seen pictures of them in the Benjamin card catalog, but the small black and white photo didn't begin to do the series justice. Besides detailed paintings of various aircraft, the cards were awash with beautiful colored backgrounds. The many different sunsets, skylines and clouds make a set unto themselves! It is impossible to describe them in words or to appreciate them through colorless reproductions. Allow me to try to make my point with a short digression.
I once knew a stockbroker who was married to an artist. They lived in San Francisco, but she was never, ever allowed to take him to any party or outside function around sundown. The reason? He always had to be home to paint the sunset. He had done so for years and had hundreds of paintings to show for it. He didn't sell them, he just collected them. Without seeing the paintings, I figured he was just another San Francisco weirdo, but after seeing the Wings cards, I think different. There are 200 different cards in the Wings series, and I wouldn't want to part with a single one of them either.
Some notable examples include card #94 with a backdrop of the Northern Lights, and card #48, with a Pacific Island sunset. There's also card #176, with a dark purple storm, and card #200, with what looks like a snow capped mount Fuji surrounded in pink morning twilight. Each one evokes a different setting and mood. The cards are larger than normal as well, (3 3/4" x 2 5/8") so the background is more detailed than the tiny Wings cigarette series.
Besides the spectacular backdrops, the machines themselves are fascinating. There are Jets, rockets, and -- no, not spacemen-- but something almost as cool and just as far out in the 1950s... Helicopters! Here's a few of the neat-o write ups from the backs:
#181, The Hiller Hornet. This tiny helicopter is one of the most unusual planes built in the United States! Its specially designed engine can operate on any kind of fuel... from ten cent per gallon stove oil, up to aviation gasoline! Commercial marketing of this plane has been postponed because of the all military program of the company.
[Snide Aside: Are you sure it wasn't the oil companies who stopped it because they didn't want any commuters flying over grid locked gas guzzling autos on 10 cent per gallon stove oil?)
Or Check out card #149, the XH-26: This is probably the smallest and lightest helicopter ever designed for the United States Army! the XH-26 can be collapsed into a 5 x 5 x 14 ft container, and parachuted from a larger plane. When it hits the ground, two men can unpack and reassemble it, and have it flying in only 20 minutes! It will fly on gasoline or kerosene.
Man-o-man, I need one of those! It would almost be as convenient as George Jetson's brief-case/ space ship! But why haven't we seen these things flying around lately? Isn't 50 years long enough to get these products out on the commercial market?
I said earlier that there were rockets in the set. Technically, these are jets, but some of them sure look and act like rockets. Take the French 0-10 Leduc for example. It can only be launched from a mother plane and has only two port holes for the pilot to peep out of. And there's the Australian Target Plane, which looks very similar to the German V-2 rockets of WW2. In fact, like the infamous buzz bombs, they can also be flown unmanned (but controlled by radio). The biggest difference is that the bomb carried in the Target Plane can be atomic! (Mental note to self: Do not piss off the Australians.)
And of course, no futuristic aircraft series would be complete without including the obligatory Flying Wing (card #145). It's "one of the few in the world that is practically nothing more than a wing with motors! There is no body or tail, and the crew sit in a special cockpit built right into the wing." Little wonder so many science fiction films included stock footage of these smart looking aircraft taking off or landing. Its style was to planes what the Corvette was to cars!
As if the attractive color and interesting aircraft information were not enough, there's also another theme that really makes this set fun: The cold war paranoia. Each card has a silhouette on the back of an unidentified aircraft with the bold challenge beneath it reading, "FRIEND or FOE?" Kids were supposed to keep buying packs until they dug out the answer on another card. Imagine the fun they must have had scanning the skies for TU-4s, the Russian Strategic Bombers (card #98). The only thing the cards lack is a toll free hotline to call Washington to warn them of any invasion. Then again, the switch board would have been flooded with over-eager self appointed sky deputies reporting in for duty.
The back grimly notes that the shifty Russians copied (i.e., STOLE) the TU-4 design from three US B-29s that made forced landings in Siberia during WW2. (That's what we get for trying to help the dirty little commies!) But look at the bright side, that lapse in military judgment did contribute another exciting card to an already delightful series, so perhaps it was the worth the sacrifice.
Besides, who are we to complain about the Russians copying our designs? The one nationality that is conspicuously absent in this series is actually the country that created the vast majority of the technology and concepts showcased throughout this set... and it wasn't the USA. If there is one good thing to come out of the Third Reich, it's the invention of both jets and rockets. In fact, both the Russian and US space programs were run by former Nazi scientists. (Ours was headed up by Dr. Werner Von Brown.) One suspects the Battle for Britain would have gone the other way if Hitler had funded his Aeronautics more and his conventional forces less. What they accomplished with limited resources was stunning. But the Wings set was created less than a decade after the dreaded war, and the last thing the American public wanted was to give the devil his due.
And finally, another neat thing about this series is the low cost. You can piece together the set at any non-sports show or most issues of The Wrapper for 50 cents to $2 a card, and I'm unaware of there being any particularly scarce cards in the set. Whadda deal!
All these considerations make Wings one of the most fun and easy to finish sets from the 1950s. About the only thing they could have done to make it any more enjoyable would have been to add a flying saucer card! But even without it, Wings is still OUT OF THIS WORLD!
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