Michael Rainey is, at heart, a collector. It’s written all over his 18th century home in downtown Beaufort, where every surface holds some part of his vast assembly of artifacts. One room might see neatly arranged rows of 19th-century snuffboxes and Scottish tobacco horns. Another, assorted stoneworks from ancient Rome that he saved from a landfill after surviving an earthquake in Italy. In his garden, you’ll see bonsai trees he cultivated during his time in Japan.
But the true passion project is kept along the walls of an airplane hanger a few minutes away on Lady’s Island. Here, just behind a massive wall of corrugated metal, lies a collection of aviation relics that rivals any museum.
“It didn’t really start from one piece,” Rainey said. “I just kept looking and finding stuff.”
Set beneath a massive unfolded parachute, the collection is arranged on walls and tables. Three wooden propellers dominate one end of the collection, glossy oaken reminders of the technology that first allowed man to reach the skies. One of them is a Curtiss F1 flying boat, built more than a century ago.
Along another wall, and neatly arranged on department store style clothing racks, is an entire wardrobe of flights suits and sheepskin-lined bomber jackets. Some have never been worn. Some tell a story of the brave men and women who wore them.
He pointed to one flight jacket from the Army Air Corps, which he knows from extensive research was used in the China-Burma theater. “They were probably in Burma somewhere when this guy was promoted to first lieutenant,” he said, pointing to a patch of ink on the collar. “They couldn’t find an insignia so he made one.”
But the ones that tell the best stories are the ones that have the word “Rainey” stenciled on them. They’re personal reminders of Rainey’s own extensive career as a Marine Corps pilot. Starting out flying F-4 Phantoms, he eventually worked his way up the ranks to lieutenant colonel, fighting in the first Gulf War and training pilots worldwide.
“After that I got orders, ‘career enhancing orders,’ to go work with the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he said. “I just went, ‘Yeah right. Getting up at 5 a.m. to get generals coffee?’”
He decided to return to his Beaufort home, where he now offers tours in the single greatest item in his collection: a gleaming yellow “Tiger Moth” biplane. Used by British pilots as a training vehicle, it was sold to the French Air Force in 1946, then transitioned to a French flying club a few years later. It came to the states in the 1970s where it waited until Rainey bought it in 2005 and did a complete restoration.
And now, when it’s not taking passengers up to the skies above Beaufort, it anchors a stunning collection of naval aviation history.
“It’s like any other collection. It forms over the years,” Rainey said. “My advice has always been, just go slow and get the best you can.”
Visit Beaufort Biplane Tours to learn more about the Tiger Moth and schedule your tour.”