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Air Heritage Museum

On January 18, 2008

Interesting people and places lie in wait all around Beaver County, Pennsylvania, like the Air Heritage Museum which sits at the back of a gravel parking lot in an umpromising metal building. Inside the non-descript building is a close knit community of airplane enthusiasts who volunteer their time and efforts to keep this small, authentic air museum open six days a week.

A collection of artifacts (with a nice small exhibit on the Womens Air Force) is on display immediately inside the front door but the guts of the operation are in the warehouse/hangar beyond the exhibit room. On the day we made the drive to the Beaver County Airport in Beaver Falls, the volunteers were in the hangar space having a pot luck lunch and birthday cake for one of their members. The unforced conviviality of people laboring together on work they love was apparent in the easy way the group interacted. A couple of children and a few people slightly older than young adult were present but most were men (and some women) who had fallen in love with airplanes during their Viet Nam era service or before. As one of them said, “We work for a couple of hours or until we get sleepy.”  I’m in my early fifties – a trifle younger than most Viet Nam era vets – but I would imagine that all of them (like my sainted father) would last longer on a day spent rehabbing a plane than I would.

The hangar is a working airplane refit shop with a number of aircraft in various stages of assembly. Bart Farzati was kind enough to break away from the goings on and act as tour guide for the facility. At the time of our visit the wing ribs of Maggie’s Pride, a Fairchild 24, were being painstakingly reconstructed. Not far away a

North American T-28 Trojan

was being refurbished after a trip in from Fort Bliss, Texas.

On the tarmac outside the hangar a number of beauties were parked in varying states of flyability. Two stood out for me, the first being an aviation ready and available for air shows

Grumman OV-1D Mohawk

Quick test question – in the picture below, what is the apparatus hanging from the wing of the OV-1D?

Someone please say bomb so I won’t feel so stupid (although Bart took my answer with a surprising lack of condescension and no laughter whatsoever; please believe me when I write that as the words escaped my lips I realized the stupidity of thinking a plane was standing on an open airfield in the middle of eastern Pennsylvania with bombs nonchalantly strapped to its wings).

Correct answer: a camera. The Mohawk was a photographic observation and reconnaissance aircraft (I think it also could be used to scare people who might not know that those weren’t bombs hanging off its wings.)

The second plane that lingers in my memory was obviously close to Bart’s heart: a Fairchild C123-K, also lovingly referred to as

The Thunder Pig – that’s Bart coming out the front

The C-123, hereafter referred to as the Pig, is a highly manueverable transport plane with a big rear end that allows for easy on loading and off loading. Even one such as I with very limited technical understanding of airplanes (like I had to tell you that) could appreciate not just the utilitarian aspect of the Pig but a little bit of the fun of flying it as well; especially after Bart pointed out the window above the cockpit which allowed for sextant navigation.  Plotting your course by the stars is one of those feats that seems totally out of the realm of possibility for me. Imagine being Captain Bligh – yes, that Captain Bligh – using a sextant to find his way back from the waters off Tahiti to an oupost more the 3,500 miles away. He made it to that friendly habor in 47 days with all but one of those who had been put off of the Bounty with him. Had I been the captain there would have been no knowledge of the mutiny on the Bounty because no one would have survived the trip back to tell the tale.

The Pig has flown but when we were there it was ground bound due to engine problems; the crew at the museum was staying at work on it while awaiting its overhauled heart.

Airplanes – much like trains – seem to call out to us from an early age. Who doesn’t stop to look up when the sound of an engine growls overhead or peer expectantly down the tracks at the click clack of train wheels? I will forever see in my heart’s eye my father pointing out to my son the track of a plane across the sky or the two of them hanging out the car window at the sound of an approaching train. Memories like those cannot be made without the hard work of people like the volunteers at the Air Heritage Museum. Most of us can’t put a plane back together but we can stop by for a visit at the Air Heritage Museum and leave a little something that’s green and folds so that Bart and people like him and his friends can continue their important contributions to living history.

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