March 8, 2021, © Leeham News: The Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation appears to be weeks away from the test flight for the replacement of the Douglas C-54E that was badly damaged last year in a tornado.
The 76-year old airplane participated in the historic 1948 airlift that brough food, coal and other goods to West Berlin after the Soviet Union initiated a ground blockade. The Soviets tried to starve the West Berliners into submission and force the former World War II Allies (Britain, France and the US) to hand over occupation of West Berlin to the Soviets, who occupied East Berlin deep inside East Germany.
The C-54’s interior is a museum of the airlift. The foundation flew the airplane to many air shows in the US each year. The aircraft was flown to Walterboro (SC) in December 2019 for installation of avionics. On April 13, 2020, a tornado hit the area and the airport. A 20 ft long hangar beam 20 inches in diameter through rear and center spars, through a fuel tank, then the front spar and through the No. 1 engine firewall. It was repairable. The Foundation would have had to build a shelter, three years to repair, and sheet metal workers making custom parts.
“If we repaired the Foundation’s plane, it would take three years, $300,000 and we’d still have high time engines,” said Tim Chopp, the Foundation’s president. During this lengthy period, the Foundation essentially would be out of business. The second airplane owned by the Foundation to honor the Airlift, a Boeing C-97, was grounded previously with a blown No. 2 engine. It’s still waiting repairs.
The Foundation considered two replacement airplanes. One, a C-54D, was once owned by Florida Air Transport and used until a few years ago in cargo service. Within prop-geek circles, FAT’s owner is the well-known Carlos Gomez. Gomez was once co-owner of the Douglas DC-7B in Eastern Airlines colors. This aircraft has been at the Charlotte (NC) aviation museum since an engine failure in 2011.
The airplane was at West Smyrna (FL), where it remained at the side of the airport following a nose-gear collapse several years ago. The airplane has less time on it (26,000 hours vs 29,000 on the Foundation’s airplane). The engines also have lower time, some much lower, than the C-54E. One engine has 15 hours, a second with 78, a third with 250. The highest time is 1,000 hours.
The other C-54 the Foundation considered was one owned by Canada’s Buffalo Airways of Ice Pilots NWT fame now streaming on Amazon Prime.
“We came very close to that airplane,” Chopp said. But price and engine condition nixed this purchase. The lowest time engine on the Buffalo C-54 was 1,200 hours.
The aircraft was damaged Aug. 20, 2014, in a landing at New Smyrna Beach (FL). By this time, the aircraft was owned by Island Air Transport. Upon landing, the nose gear slowly retracted. The nose gear doors and the props on engines two and three were damaged. The plane was parked since then. The Foundation purchased the aircraft Aug. 15 last year.
Bringing the plane back to life has been measured in months. The C-54 has been on taxi tests. The first flight test may be within a few weeks, depending on paperwork from the Federal Aviation Administration. FAA processing, like so many other things, was slowed by COVID.
Once the airplane is certified airworthy, it will be flown to Walterboro, The Airlift Museum will be transferred from the C-54E to the C-54D. Once this is done, the new airplane will be taken to a paint shop in Arkansas. The Berlin Airlift livery will be applied there.
Chopp hopes the airplane will be ready for some summertime events.
Then, the Foundation will tackle getting a new engine for the Boeing C-97 that’s been parked in Redding (PA) since No. 2 engine failed.
Getting the two airplanes back into service isn’t cheap. The Foundation needs money. Information about donating may be found here.