By now many of you have heard that the Museum of Aviation is downsizing the aircraft collection. In light of the 50% manpower cut at the beginning of 2012 and a shrinking budget allocation for the Museum from the USAF, we’ve had to take a hard look at what we can do to maintain a quality collection, one the community and USAF can be proud of.
The National Museum of the USAF (NMUSAF), the owner of all our aircraft, made it very clear: If you can’t take care of it, you shouldn’t have it. And NMUSAF is right. So in 2011 we put a collections team together to determine what we needed to do and how to do it. It quickly became obvious that we had too many aircraft, especially outside, for us to take care of in light of the significantly reduced resources. When we started we had no idea what the right answer was other than “fewer.” After three rounds of cuts the number emerged to be 32 or about a one-third reduction in the number of aircraft. Some were easy, many were hard.
As we started the elimination process we took the easy cuts first: the duplicates, the airframes serving as sources of parts for restoration projects, some airplanes we were holding for the NMUSAF and considering keeping, and a couple of long-term restoration projects that were best to just let go. That was round 1.
Round 2 got harder, picking more birds to let go, knowing that we had to let some of the big aircraft go because they are the real resource consumers and would likely stay outside in the weather and continue to deteriorate. We looked too for possible future replacements for ones we’d let go now. The EC-135N is a good example. The aircraft we really want is the KC-135R “Cherokee Rose” Stratotanker that set a number of time-to-climb records right here at Robins while assigned to the 19th Air Refueling Wing in the 1980s. She’s still on duty today, flying the mission, but when she retires we want her here. Tough as it was, we decided to let the EC-135N go now and wait for the “Rose.”
Round 3 got really tough. Big airplanes, little airplanes had to go to align the collection with what we could take care of. We felt strongly that we needed to do everything we could to save certain big, rare airplanes, such as the C-124 Globemaster II and the C-141C Starlifter. So we looked at other options.
The C-124 was the backbone of the American military air transport fleet during the 1950s and into the 1960s. They operated from Robins Air Force Base for years. There are only nine C-124s left in the world. There’s no replacing the Museum’s example.
Same for the C-141C. There are only 13 left in the world. The C-141 was a major workload at the Warner RobinsAirLogisticsCenter for decades. This classic jet replaced the C-124 as the workhorse of the USAF’s strategic airlift mission from the 1970s into the early 2000s. The aircraft on display at the Museum was the last C-141 to go through programmed depot maintenance at Robins AFB.
And so the B-52 emerged as a candidate to declare excess. It was on the eve of our repainting the aircraft and we got a close look at the real condition of this magnificent bird. We were heartbroken when we realized how badly it has suffered after over 30 years on outside display.
The engine cowlings are made mostly of magnesium. Much of the cowling edges literally dissolved in the weather and a massive rebuild was needed. But it was too much for us, so we put metal tape over the damage where we could and painted over it.
Areas of the wing leading edges have rows and rows of popped rivets indicating significant corrosion below. The wing flaps have hundreds if not thousands of popped rivets too. The tops of the wings have intergranular corrosion (kind of like rust) that has entered into the main wing surfaces and numerous other areas.
We removed and replaced some badly damaged panels but for the most part all we could do was knock off the top layer of corrosion and paint it as best we could. And that’s just on the surface. We can only imagine what’s happening in the aircraft’s structure. It was just too much to tackle knowing it was going to continue to deteriorate outside in the weather. Yet, there is the possibility of replacing this aircraft some day with one of the B-52s still flying today.
When the elimination process was over, we had carefully considered each aircraft and large missile in the collection, racked, stacked, cussed and discussed and settled on 32 aircraft as excess. We hope we are done cutting and can handle what is left. NMUSAF has already found new homes for a number of aircraft and directed us to dispose of others. We’re waiting for instructions on about half the excess aircraft.
The big outside planes are the most challenging and costly in manpower and money to maintain. We desperately need a large exhibit hangar to protect aircraft like the B-52, C-141, C-124, and B-1. Regrettably, there is no funding to build a new hangar and preserve these historic aircraft to inspire people of all ages and educate them on the roles and missions of Robins Air Force Base and the USAF.
As Director, the final responsibility for the wellbeing and sustainability of the Museum of Aviation is mine. I first got involved with the Museum before it opened in 1982 and since then have guided dozens of aircraft to the Museum for display and preservation. No one is more pained than I to see many of the same aircraft I worked so hard to bring here let go. But we must do this to save the rest.
As you are well aware, these are difficult and austere times and our USAF is under tremendous fiscal pressures. While the Museum of Aviation provides a valuable service to the USAF, Robins Air Force Base, and the community, there are no guarantees. The challenges we face are much bigger than letting go of some airplanes.
We are at a fork in the road. Do we slip into mediocrity or excel into greatness? A discussion for another time as we try to survive now and save what we can until better times. We do not expect you to agree with our decisions, but we do ask you to understand that something had to be done and we considered, evaluated and did the best we could to make the most out of a decidedly unpleasant task.
Still, there are many reasons to be hopeful. We are working hard and pressing forward. There are a lot of good things happening here. Thank you for your support of the Museum of Aviation.
Museum of Aviation