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Flying Boxcar comes home

November 16, 2008|By HEATHER KEELS

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HAGERSTOWN -- Hundreds gathered at Hagerstown Regional Airport Sunday, scanning the horizon, aiming cameras and pointing as a behemoth of an airplane soared into view.

It circled overhead, flanked by photo planes, while those on the ground marveled at a sight many thought they'd never see again. Then, at 1:49 p.m., the Hagerstown Aviation Museum's Fairchild C-119 "Flying Boxcar" touched down, finally home, after 55 years, in the city of its birth.

The iconic military cargo plane, donated to the museum in 2006, was one of more than 1,000 C-119s produced by Fairchild Aircraft in Hagerstown. It will join the museum's C-82 as a centerpiece in a growing collection of Fairchild aircrafts, museum President Kurtis Meyers said.

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It took almost two years and about $95,000 to restore the plane to flyable condition, and last-minute repairs and weather forced its flight crew to reschedule the homecoming several times over the past few weeks.

Before making its trip to Hagerstown, the plane was in Greybull, Wyo., where it was used for fire suppression in the 1980s after being retired from the Royal Canadian Air Force, Meyers said.

The crowd of 800 to 1,000 people who turned out to witness the landing on Sunday included many who worked on or flew in C-119s.

"I figured I'd come out and see it because it'd be the last time I'd see one, at least in the air," said Bill Drager, 70, of Hagerstown, who remembers being transported in C-119s in the early 1960s when he was in the Air Force.

The passengers sat in fold-down seats in the cargo hold and generally couldn't wait for the plane to land because it was so noisy, Drager said.

William H. McLean Sr., who assembled C-119s during a portion of his 41 years at Fairchild, remembered the C-119's noise fondly.

"You could hear 'em testing 'em around the clock," McLean said. "Beautiful sound."

The manufacture of C-119s and other planes created thousands of jobs in the Hagerstown area, McLean said.

"It was the making of this town for a long time," he said.

J. Allen Clopper, 93, worked on C-119s as a flight test engineer. He said the C-119 was designed to improve upon the C-82, which had a flight deck so wide the pilots couldn't see each other. In designing the C-119, engineers brought the nose forward and down, and added bigger engines and improved doors.

"It was a first in the sense that it was an airplane you could drive things into," Clopper said, explaining that large cargo had to be loaded into earlier planes with forklifts.

After the landing, museum officials and members of the flight crew thanked the community for its support in helping to bring the Flying Boxcar home.

More than 450 donors have contributed about $80,000 so far to the Flying Boxcar's restoration, but the museum needs about $15,000 more to pay off all of the expenses, Meyers said.

Museum officials also thanked Robert Stanford, president of Zenith Aviation in Fredericksburg, Va., who purchased the plane for about $85,000 and donated it to the museum.

Stanford was overseeing the sale of the aircraft and parts from Hawkins and Powers in Wyoming when Meyers and others from the museum came out to look at the planes in preparation to bid on a C-82 for the museum.

"At night, we'd have to run 'em out because they'd be in the cockpit, up there just touching things, staying there, looking," Stanford said.

The museum group ran out of money after buying the C-82 and returned to Hagerstown, but when it began to look like the C-119s would be sold for scrap, Stanford decided to purchase one and donate it to the museum.

"I called 'em and told 'em," Stanford said. "They had no idea. It was just a neat thing." Now that the C-119 is home, the museum is turning its attention to obtaining a building to house its collection of airplanes, equipment and other local aviation artifacts, Meyers said.

"We are pretty much at the capacity that we can hold without having a building of our own," he said. The museum is looking at a building it might be able to move some of its collection into soon, but the larger planes might have to sit outside for a few more years, Meyers said.

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