Marana Regional Airport home to historic Air Force One plane - The Explorer: News

Marana Regional Airport home to historic Air Force One plane

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Posted: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 4:00 am

A piece of history sits resting at the Marana Regional Airport.

Among a handful of other airplanes needing restoration is the Columbine II, a Lockheed VC-121 Constellation 48-610, better known as Air Force One under President Dwight Eisenhower. 

Built in Burbank, Ca. in 1948, the Columbine II was not the first presidential aircraft as is commonly thought, though it was the first to receive the designation of Air Force One.

It was a mix-up in the sky in 1953 that led the Air Force to rename the aircraft.

Identified by its registration number of 8610, the Columbine II came within close proximity to another airline, Eastern Airlines Flight 8610, causing confusion in radio communication.

“The Air Force decided that was not acceptable, and that’s when the designation ‘Air Force One’ came about,” explained Steve Miller, manager of the Marana Regional Airport.

When it came off the production line in the late 40s, the Columbine II was accepted by the Air Force’s Military Air Transport Services Atlantic Division, and immediately contracted for shuttle flights between McArthur Field, N.Y., and Keflavik, Iceland. 

A year later, the aircraft was flown to Burbank, where it was re-designated to the VC-121A, and converted to carry VIP passengers.

In 1952, Eisenhower, then President-elect, first flew on the aircraft during a secret 74-hour trip to Korea that covered 18,000 miles.

By January 1953, the aircraft was designated as the official presidential aircraft, and named “Columbine II” after the official flower of Mrs. Eisenhower’s home state of Colorado. It maintained the Columbine II name and status as Air Force One until 1954, when the third Columbine, a VC-121E Super Constellation, replaced it.

Eisenhower flew for the last time on the plane in 1959 before it was retired and flown to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in 1968, where the plane was stripped of its identity and in 1970 auctioned off to Mel Christler, who operated Christler Flying Service with a small fleet of DC-3’s.

Christler had no idea that a former Air Force One was amongst those planes purchased. Due to mismatched landing gear that was installed prior to the auction, the plane would not fly, and was thereby relegated to supplying spares to keep other of Christler’s aircrafts operational.

In 1980, Robert Mikesh, a curator at the Smithsonian Institute, told Christler of the Columbine’s true identity. 

It took about nine years, but Christler and a group of friends that included now-owner Harry Oliver began restoration on the plane at Bob’s Air Park, adjacent to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where it had since been moved and sat untouched for more than 20 years.

By 1990, the aircraft was ready for flight to Ryan Air Field, where $150,000 more was put into restoration. 

In its best shape in decades, the Columbine II was shown off in air shows for the next year before it was flown to Santa Fe and parked for seven more years. 

Before being flown to the Marana Regional Airport in 2005, the Columbine II was flown to Scottsdale in 1998, where an unsuccessful attempt was made to auction the plane off at $1.5 million.

Timothy Coons, a 45-year flight engineer who acts as caretaker for the plane at the Marana airport, says the investment is just too great, even for interested buyers.

“A lot of people want it, don’t get me wrong, but nobody wants to pay for it,” he said. “At 400 gallons an hour to burn and 12 gallons an hour of oil, these big old motors consume a lot of fluid, though in their day, these were state of the art.”

The aircraft, 97 feet long, with 103-foot wingspan, still sits at the 600-acre Marana airport, off limits to the public and deteriorating under the harsh Arizona sun. 

In comparison, the first Columbine is currently preserved at the Pima Air and Space Museum and the third is located at an aviation museum in Ohio.

“Why this one didn’t get picked up for a museum is anyone’s guess,” said Miller. 

Coons estimates about $200,000 would be needed to get the plane operational for flight again.

“It doesn’t look it right at this moment, but it could fly again,” said Coons.

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