The Oldest Herk
The U.S. Marines traditionally get the short end of the stick when it comes to aircraft. Their planes are often old and outmoded, or variants that the Navy isn’t quite sure what to do with. So it should come as no surprise that the Marine Corps recently retired the oldest U.S. military aircraft in service—a Lockheed KC-130F Hercules. The Air Force still has a few Boeing B-52s that entered service in 1962, though they’ve been totally rebuilt and upgraded, but C-130 Bureau No. 147573 joined the Marines in 1961.
How long ago was 1961? Long enough that a first-class stamp cost four cents, a gallon of gas was 31 cents, you could get a new full-size sedan for less than $2,600 and the average annual salary was just under $4,600.
When 573 was still just a kid, it went to Vietnam, where it flew assault-support and medevac missions— most spectacularly during the siege of Khe Sanh, sometimes seven and eight times a day into and out of a runway that was under constant artillery fire. The airplane has been operating steadily ever since, most recently as a flying gas tank based at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, on Okinawa, with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152. The Herk has also flown in every overseas humanitarian assistance program in which the Marines participated during the last four years.
Its last flight was from Futenma to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the famous “aluminum boneyard” near Tucson, Ariz., on February 23. There it was mothballed, ready to fly again if necessary. Replacing it will be—what else?—a new C-130J, the ultimate incarnation of the faithful Herk and the only version still in production.
Fifi to Fly Again
The Cavanaugh Flight Museum and the Commemorative Air Force have entered into a cooperative agreement to return the only currently airworthy Boeing B-29 to flying status. Jim Cavanaugh, a longtime benefactor of warbird restoration projects, has pledged $1.2 million to re-engine the bomber, dubbed Fifi. CAF members will provide additional funding.
As part of the agreement, the B-29 will be based at the Cavanaugh Flight Museum in Addison, Texas, where visitors will be able to view the aircraft during the six months when it is not touring on behalf of the CAF. The bomber had previously been based at the CAF headquarters complex in Midland, Texas, site of the American Airpower Heritage Museum.
“The B-29 played such a significant role in history that it is important that this airplane be preserved,” said Cavanaugh. “Because of my close relationship with the CAF, I felt the need to get Fifi flying again.” More info at: commemorative airforce.org or cavanaughflightmuseum.com.
Things change rapidly in the world of stealth technology. Enough so that the Lockheed F-117A, the lawn- dart stealth bomber, despite being labeled a fighter, that starred in both Gulf wars has already been retired, 27 years after it went into service. Unlike such warhorses as the B-52, A-10 Warthog and C-5 airlifter, which have classic capabilities good for half a century and more, the F-117 is now visible to new long-wavelength defensive radar (which, in fact, is how the Serbians cagily shot down the sole F-117 lost to enemy action, in 1999). And the new F-22 Raptor stealth fighter exceeds its capabilities in many ways.
The stealth technology that made the F-117 possible was invented, at least in mathematical theory, by the Russians (yes, this time it’s true), but it remained for Lockheed’s Skunk Works to not only turn equations into hardware but to develop the computerized flight-control system that allowed the spectacularly unstable “Wobblin’ Goblin” to fly.
The old joke pilots used to tell about F-117s when they were first flying: An early F-117 on a super-secret cross-country flight through civilian airspace contacted FAA air traffic control. “Roger, Air Force 309,” the controller answered. “Radar contact 45 miles east of Tonopah at Flight Level 270.”
The last of the remaining 52 F-117As was parked and mothballed in Nevada, at the Tonopah Test Range Airfield, in April.
A B-2 stealth bomber crashed on February 23 at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. It was the first crash involving a B-2, which cost approximately $1.2 billion each to build. Both pilots ejected safely from the bomber. The cause of the crash is still under investigation.
Liberty Girl Floats!
Warning: There are enough goofy elements to this story that it should really be filed under “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.”
A disbarred Welsh veterinarian, Maurice Kirk, ditched his Piper Cub in the Caribbean 80 miles off the Dominican Republic in mid-February and perched atop the nicely buoyant craft to await the U.S. Coast Guard helicopter sent from Miami to rescue him. He’d smartly drained the gas tanks during his descent to provide the wings with some flotation. Whether he was also helped by the fact that he’d painted the Piper with shark repellant isn’t known, but the locater beacon that he was cagey enough to carry certainly did.
The Coasties had to telephone New Zealand to find out whether the beacon signal was legitimate, since that’s where the radio had been bought, and the Kiwis then phoned Kirk’s wife at home in Wales to announce that her husband was taking the Big Swim. “I was warned that the outcome of these things is usually not very good,” she later commented, “but I told them my husband is indestructible. He’s crashed before [and] he always seems to survive.”
Indeed he has. Kirk’s extensive and amusing Web site, www.kirkfly ingvet.com, features several photos of airplanes he’s pranged as well as a video of himself describing his ditching while sitting beside a motel swimming pool on the island of Providenciales. At the time, he hoped the airplane was still only semisubmerged and was simultaneously offering a reward to anybody who spotted it and looking for a sponsor to pay for its retrieval. (His wife also worked the phones from Wales.)
Now 62, Kirk flew the Cub in the 2001 London-to-Sydney Air Race—without charts and after being disqualified on the first day for landing in a French pasture—and planned to continue on around the world. He made it no farther than Japan, where he dead-sticked the airplane onto a city street in Kanazawa after an engine failure, badly damaging it.
The aircraft was shipped to Alaska to be rebuilt, and he’d picked it up just a month before the ditching. His Cub is actually an L-4, an ex-Army spotter plane conveniently rumored to have been used, and at times actually flown, by General George S. Patton.
Kirk calls himself the “Flying Vet” but in fact was relieved of his license in 2002 by England’s Royal College of Veterinary Surgery for “disgraceful conduct,” including 11 arrests for everything from serious speeding to assault. Which is actually the least of it: Kirk claims to have been in jail some 30 times and once spent six weeks in stir for smuggling an airplane into England from France and being drunk in the bargain.
If it weren’t for Britain, we wouldn’t have eccentrics.
The airport in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, has been renamed Pappy Boyington Field in honor of the city’s most famous native son, 24-victory Marine ace Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. The name change followed a two-year battle in which backers of the measure successfully countered concerns about Boyington’s hard-drinking lifestyle. A Medal of Honor recipient, he died in 1988 at age 75 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
24-Cent Stamp Sells for $825,000
An anonymous Wall Street executive recently purchased a mint example of one of the world’s most famous misprinted postage stamps, the “Inverted Jenny,” at an auction held by Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, Texas. Only about 100 of the 24-cent U.S. airmail stamps, depicting an upside-down Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny,” were issued in 1918.
Flying Banana Coast to Coast
The forerunner of today’s heavy-lift workhorses, the CH-47 Chinook and CH-46 Sea Knight, was the tandem-rotor Piasecki H-21 Shawnee transport helicopter, best known as the “Flying Banana” due to the distinctive shape of its fuselage. Widely accepted as a utility and rescue craft during the Korean War, it also made headlines in the interwar years: A modified HU-21 was used for the first nonstop helicopter flight across the United States. The 37-hour, 2,610-mile transcontinental flight, punctuated by in-flight refuelings via fixed-wing aircraft, ended on August 24, 1956.
Only a dozen years earlier, when Frank N. Piasecki received a U.S. Navy contract for a heavy-duty transport on January 1, 1944, the role rotorcraft would play in the military was far from clear. Dozens of American firms had been working to develop helicopters, some of which had even demonstrated their utility during WWII. But according to a statement by Piasecki in a 1983 New York Times article, he chose a vague name for his firm in those years—P-V Engineering Forum—“because if you used the word ‘helicopter’ people thought you were nuts.”
Today Frank Piasecki is regarded as the pioneer of twin-rotor technology, although he actually held a handful of aviation patents. Later acquired by Vertol, his company ended up as part of Boeing. But Piasecki remained chief executive of Boeing’s Rotorcraft Division until his death at age 88 on February 11, 2008.
Originally published in the July 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.