Breitling DC-3 Flight
Camarillo Connie Makes Final Flight
January 14, 2012
RC-121D 53-548 was delivered to the United States Air Force (USAF) in August 1955 and assigned to the 552 AEW Wing at McClellan AFB in Sacramento, California. Redesignated an EC-121D in October 1955 the aircraft enjoyed a 23 year career, including assignments at McCoy AFB; Taiwan; Vietnam; South Korea; Iceland; and finally Homestead AFB in Florida. 53-548 was one of 20 EC-121D’s updated and modernized by the USAF in 1970 to EC-121T standards. While not all aircraft had their dorsal radomes removed during the upgrade, 53-548 emerged from the upgrade minus hers. The aircraft was the last of ten Homestead based EC-121T’s to be retired and arrived at Davis Monthan AFB for storage on October 16, 1978. Having been cocooned after arriving at Davis Monthan, she was withdrawn from storage and transferred to the Pima Air and Space Museum on September 30, 1981 and placed on display. By 1994 the museum had two EC-121’s and was looking to offload one of them. In November 1994, California businessman Wayne Jones began discussions with the museum to acquire 53-548. In December, a team consisting of Wayne Jones, Bob Leisten, Jerry Doyle and Del Mitchell arrived at the museum to inspect the aircraft, maintenance records and engine logs. Finding everything in order, the sale was finalized on December 29, 1994 and the aircraft assigned the civilian registration N548GF.
Wayne Jones formed the non-profit Global Aeronautical Foundation (GAF) with the intent of flying the aircraft on the airshow circuit. The aircraft was in remarkably good shape, having been overhauled by the USAF shortly before its 1978 retirement. Total airframe time was 24,000 hours with all engines being low time and props recently overhauled. In addition, none of the electronic equipment had been removed and much of it, including the APS-95 radar, was operational. In January 1995 a team of 14 volunteers returned to Tucson and the aircraft was towed to the restoration area at the museum, where work began to get her ready for the flight to GAF’s home base in Camarillo, California. The aircraft had been well preserved by the folks at Davis Monthan AFB and N548GF was ready for her first flight in 17 years on April 14, 1995. With retired Lockheed test pilot Frank Butorac in command, Wayne Jones in right seat and Jimmy Jones as flight engineer, the aircraft departed Davis Monthan AFB for a one hour test flight. Landing at Tucson International Airport after the first flight, another one hour flight was performed later that day and the aircraft was pronounced fit for the ferry flight to Camarillo. N548GF was a military aircraft and thus not eligible for a standard airworthiness certificate. Instead, an experimental certificate was issued and, prior to departure, an FAA representative made sure that the word “Experimental” was properly stenciled on the aircraft. While Wayne was free to fly his airplane, the experimental certificate placed significant limits on its use. The next day, with observers Bob Leisten and Del Mitchell also on board, N548GF departed Tucson and two hours later arrived safely at Camarillo.
With the aircraft safely in Camarillo the team probably thought the tough part was behind them. This was not to be. Relations between Wayne and the FAA were not good and over the years they became more and more strained. The aircraft, under the command of Frank Butorac was flown sparingly between 1995 and 1998, with visits to airshows at Point Mugu, Fort Worth, San Diego and a flight to Santa Barbara to have new radios installed. While the FAA was comfortable with Frank flying the aircraft, when he passed away in 1998, they informed Wayne that a “professional” flight program had to be established. Since the aircraft was military, Super Constellation type ratings were not valid and pilots had to be qualified by what’s known as an FAA issued Letter of Authorization (LOA) for Special Areas of Operation (SAO). LOA’s are commonly used in the warbird community to certify pilots to fly former military aircraft with experimental airworthiness certificates. John Deakin, a local pilot who was current in the Commemorative Air Force’s Camarillo based C-46 was issued an LOA after a checkride in August 1999 with Wayne Jones in the right seat and Terry McMaster at the flight engineer station. The plan was for John to train additional pilots but, before it all came to fruition, the FAA grounded the aircraft in June 2000 due to outer wing corrosion. In 2002 Wayne attempted to sell the aircraft, with it being offered for sale in February 2002 on the Barnstormers.com website for $595,000 and in June 2002 in Trade-A-Plane for $695,000. Repairs were made but the aircraft was still grounded when Wayne passed away on June 21, 2002 at the age of 71.
Other than making an occasional appearance at the annual Camarillo airshow, the EC-121T led a sedentary life until Wayne’s widow Lois donated it to the Yanks Air Museum in December 2005. Local aviation enthusiast Terry Wall reported that a crew of mechanics arrived at Camarillo on March 15, 2006 and immediately began working on the aircraft. Engines were run, systems checked, gear retraction tests performed and many bird nests removed in preparation of the flight, which they hoped would occur sometime in April. After the work was completed, an IA proclaimed the aircraft ready for flight and a certified structural engineer blessed the wing corrosion repairs that had been previously completed by Wayne Jones. On June 13, 2006 a group of inspectors from the Van Nuys FSDO went over the aircraft with a fine tooth comb and presented Yanks with a punch list of issues that would have to be corrected before the flight could be undertaken. There would be no ferry flight in 2006!
Yanks spent 2007 working on resolving punch list issues, including additional corrosion repairs to the outer wing panels. After completion of these repairs, the FAA informed the museum that a maintenance program would have to be established, complete with manuals and tech orders. It appeared that every time Yanks satisfied an FAA requirement, another one would appear. Could it be that the museum “inherited” some of the bad blood between the FSDO and Wayne Jones? It sure seemed so. As luck would have it, the University of Montana–Helena College of Technology had a complete set of manuals, which they graciously allowed Yanks to copy. With manuals in hand, a maintenance program was developed and the museum spent the summer of 2009 again preparing the aircraft for the ferry flight. Again it was not to be! 2010 passed with the museum working on other priorities while N548GF languished in Camarillo. When it appeared that the flight to Chino would never happen, a Yanks crew suddenly arrived in Camarillo in the fall of 2011 and again began preparing the aircraft for a ferry flight. Things at the Van Nuys FSDO also appeared to have changed. A new rep had been assigned and he was actually working with Yanks to get the aircraft ready to fly home. By the end of December Frank Wright, who had headed the six year effort for the museum, proclaimed the aircraft ready and the illusive FAA ferry permit imminent. The long awaited ferry flight was scheduled for Saturday January 14, 2012. Would the third time be the charm?
On Wednesday January 11, 2012 Frank and his crew arrived to make final preparations for the flight. Engine runs and high speed taxi tests were successfully completed during the next couple of days and all that was needed was the ferry permit, which was promised for Friday. The crew pressure washed the old girl on Friday and she was proclaimed ready for Saturday’s big event. After many days of severe clear weather, Saturday morning dawned in Camarillo with hazy sky conditions, complete with high clouds. Not enough to stop the flight but not the most ideal conditions for aircraft photography. The originally scheduled 11:00am PST, departure time was pushed back to noon and at 11:45am engine start began. Less than a half hour later, the aircraft was slowly climbing out over Camarillo Airport for probably the last time. It had been a long and difficult six year effort but Frank Wright and the Yanks Air Museum had finally made it happen and my hat is off to them for their perseverance. In addition to Frank Wright, I’d like to thank my friends Terry Wall and Del Mitchell for their first hand accounts and help in preparing this article.
At 12:10 PST on January 14, 2012, EC-121T N548GF/53-548 began her takeoff roll on Camarillo Airport’s runway 26 for what would probably be her final flight. After takeoff, she slowly circled the airport gaining altitude before continuing on to her new home at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California. In order to avoid densely populated areas, N548GF headed northeast towards the Mojave Desert and Palmdale before making her way to Chino via the Cajon Pass. Engine starts were clean with all engines running smoothly when Al Malecha released the brakes for the short taxi to Camarillo’s runway 26. The crew consisted of Al Malecha in command, Pat Farrell in the right seat and Geoff Berens at the flight engineer’s panel. Tim Coons, of MATS Connie fame, had assisted Yanks Air Museum in preparing the aircraft for the flight and was also onboard providing another set of experienced eyes and ears. After what can be described as a routine 90 minute flight, N548GF landed safely in Chino. A large crowd had gathered at Camarillo for the sendoff, including well known Constellation "personalities" Gordon Cole, Benny Younesi, Del Mitchell and Jerry Steele. While there was a large trailing oil stain of the right fuselage on arrival, the 57 year old aircraft performed well during the flight and the landing appeared to be a "squeaker". The museum doesn’t plan on flying the aircraft and she will be put on permanent display in Chino. The flight was the culmination of a six year effort by the museum to ferry the airplane to its home in Chino.
Photo Credits: Terry Wall, Del Mitchell, Graham Robson, Michael O'Leary, Ralph M. Pettersen
----Created 11 September 2013----