Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Flying into the future: Bataan to fly from Valle to Chino, California for full restoration

Bataan awaits its flight to the Chino, California Planes of Fame Air Museum.

VALLE, Ariz. - History is not for everyone, but even for those not interested in dates, battles, migrations of entire civilizations and the rise and fall of empires, there's no denying the spine tingling shiver you get when a glint of polished steel and the roar from the engine of a vintage aircraft blows past you on its way down the runway.

Usually, the plane circles high overhead, hanging suspended for just a second, before disappearing into the horizon, leaving nothing but a jet stream and a few chills in its wake. 

Bataan is one such vintage plane and with the help of a dedicated collector and more than a handful of vintage aircraft enthusiast, the Lockheed C-121A Constellation, 48-613c/n 2605 will soon be seen soaring high on the horizon again. It has been over a decade since it was in the air. 

Earlier this year, Lewis Air Legends out of San Antonio, Texas, purchased Bataan from a Planes of Fame Air Museum and plans to fly the Constellation from the Valle Planes of Fame Museum to its parent company, Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California. 

While there is plenty of work to be done once Bataan arrives in Chino, Lewis believes Bataan is worth every penny his company is spending to get the Constellation back in the air. 

Bataan holds a unique place in history. One of only two-post WWII era Constellations in the world still flying. The other one is currently in Europe. 

In a long list of historic aircraft that has barely escaped being turned into scrap metal, the Bataan has been saved again and again bouncing back and forth across the country.

The historical significance of the Bataan is undisputed. During its time many of its passengers were VIPs. Including U.S. presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Bataan also flew South Korean President Sygman Rhee and many other post WWII generals. In its time Bataan was top of the line in design and luxury. 

"It almost looked like a scaled down Air Force One," said Mark Magin, media director for Lewis Air Legends. "You have a large cabin in the back where maybe the crew or the press rode and then there was more personal cabin, a galley, a media area - as crude as it is now, it was state of the art back then." 

Another reason Bataan's history is so rich is the fact that it served as U.S. General Douglas MacArthur's personal transport plane during the early 1950s. 

MacArthur, the U.S. general responsible for the re-industrialization of Japan and later in Korea after World War II, also gave Bataan its name. 

"He named it Bataan after the notorious Bataan Death March," Magin said. "Those were some of the guys MacArthur had to leave behind when they evacuated the Philippines early in the war. He always said he would return for them and so it served most of that time (post WWII) as his personal transport."

Bataan flew MacArthur to Wake Island when he had his only meeting with President Harry Truman and flew him to Andrews Air Force Base on April 16, 1951, where MacArthur was relieved of his command 

After Bataan was no longer serving as MacArthur 's personal carrier, the plane continued to transport many prestigious passengers. 

"The aircraft has definitely seen some political and historical members," Magin said. 

Bataan flew a final mercy mission in the Philippines before being declared surplus in 1965. 

It was sent to the Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center (MASDC)at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona where it remained in storage for a short time. 

In 1966, Goddard Space Flight Center selected Bataan to help with the Apollo Moon Program. 

By 1970 Bataan was no longer of use by the Apollo program and was up for sale. 

As a piece of history, the Philippine government wanted it but couldn't afford to have it flown to Manila, so Bataan was sent to the U.S. Army Aviation Museum in Fort Rucker, Alabama. 

For 22 years Bataan quietly rested in the museum before the threat of being turned into scrap metal spurred the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California, to purchase the plane. 

It took nine months before Bataan was declared fit to be ferried to California. It made one pit stop in Dothan, Alabama, where it's NASA paint was stripped and the original colors once again showed forth. Bataan landed in Chino on Dec. 6, 1994. 

The following year the owners decided to transfer Bataan to Valle, Arizona, where the dry air would help prevent any further deterioration. For the last 10 years Bataan has been on display at the Planes of Fame museum in Valle. 

In March, Lewis Air Legends founder, Rod Lewis purchased Bataan and decided to restore it to its original splendor. 

"I thought the Connie (a reference to Constellations) needed to be rescued and put back in the air again to honor our veterans" Lewis said on his website. "There are lots of single and twin engine war birds out there, it's nice to see a few of these "Big Boys" flying. I thought it would be great to let people see and hear one of these behemoths of days gone by." 

For over eight months, a Planes of Fame restoration crew, contracted by Lewis Air Legends to help with the work, has meticulously examined Bataan to ensure its flight readiness. 

Lewis Air Legends plans to fly Bataan back to Chino, where it will undergo an extensive and full restoration over the next two to three years. 

The plan is to restore Bataan back to its 1950 splendor when it was serving as MacArthur's plane. 

A few challenges to restoring and flying vintage planes is finding parts for the plane, finding a crew who can fly a 1950s model, getting approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and having good flying conditions. 

While weather conditions have been less than favorable over the last few weeks in Valle, Magin said the crew is confident Bataan will fly again. 

Finding a full flight crew has been a challenge. 

"There's qualified pilots, those guys can fly that aircraft but there's not a flight crew " he said. "There are not a lot of flight engineers to fly that kind of aircraft." 

Once Bataan gets a full flight crew and approval from the FAA, it will make the flight to Chino. The plane is expected to take off from Valle and fly directly to California. In the unlikely case of difficulties along the way, an emergency landing can be made in Kingman, Arizona. 

"They're going to know (if anything is wrong) once they roll down that runway and take off," Magin said. "They'll know right away. If they get in the air and they all feel comfortable, they're going right to California with it."

To ensure they get to California safely, restoration crews have worked tirelessly to get Bataan into the best operating condition possible. 

"Basically we had to go through the whole airplane and that's a big airplane," Magin said. "Fortunately we have some good resources at the San Antonio facility and Planes of Fame has some good resources too. Where you can't find parts, you have to make them."

Once Bataan is successfully overhauled in Chino, Magin said Lewis would like to see it in air shows and enjoyed by the public. 

"Mr. Lewis would like to be able to fly it in air shows and have it on display in different places," he said. "He would like for people to be able to see it and appreciate it. It's a very important piece of military and aviation history." 

Story and photo gallery:   http://www.grandcanyonnews.com

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