March Air Museum adds DC-4 to collection
HISTORY: A WWII-era aircraft ends its career with a cloud of smoke at March Field.
By MELISSA EISELEIN
MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE - In its heyday, the C-54 that landed Saturday (Jan. 19th 2002) at March Air Reserve Base carried military personnel and supplies and fought fires throughout Southern California. That was a long time ago.
Making its last flight from Tucson, Ariz., the plane made its first approach to the runway with one landing gear down -- it wouldn't stay up after take off.
"It came up, went back down and stayed there," former owner Bill Dempsay later said.
The plane circled the airfield, the remaining landing gear was brought down and a second approach was made as March Field Museum spectators held their breath.
The plane, which looked ready for the scrapheap, blew a tire as it touched down on the runway, leaving behind a trail of smoke. Then, with oil dripping from the engines, the C-54 taxied to the museum, where it is now on display.
"This kind of event is one of joy and sadness at the same time," said Shayne Meder, museum restoration manager. "But bucket or not, dripping or smoking, flat tires and all, it's ours."
The museum paid $50,000 to add the C-54 to its collection. There are no immediate plans to restore the plane.
Museum officials said they believe the plane was used during the Berlin Airlift and in the Korean War, but will research its history to find out where it served. Once that is complete, the C-54 will be painted in the military colors used during its time in service.
"What we do know from the serial number is that it entered the Army Air Corps in 1945," Meder said.
Everything could take about a year once the process begins, Meder said.
Dempsay said he bought the C-54 in 1974 and flew it on fire-fighting missions out of Hemet-Ryan Airport through 1994. After that, the plane was put into storage.
To ready the C-54 for flight, Dempsay said he had to change the carburetor, change a tire and fix a problem with the brakes. He and his crew flew the plane, stripped of all but its most essential instruments, and sporting cardboard on its seats instead of foam, to March Field Museum.
Welcoming the plane Saturday were former Berlin Airlift pilot retired Col. Hal Austin, 77, and former C-54 flight engineer retired Senior Master Sgt. Francis Lemire, 83, both of Riverside.
"When I heard this plane was coming, I had to see it," said Lemire, who flew 103 Berlin Airlift missions in Germany between Frankfurt and Berlin in the late 1940s.
During the airlift, a fleet of C-54s delivered coal, food and runway equipment to a city cut off from the West because of the Cold War. Both Austin and Lemire praised the reliability of the plane during its service time.
"I never had so much as a flat tire," Lemire said.