Columbine II Restoration - August 2023
First Air Force One "Columbine II" Update
I made my annual summer pilgrimage to Dynamic Aviation in Bridgewater, Virginia on August 16, 2023 and visited Hangar F, where VC-121A 48-610 "Columbine II" is undergoing a "better-than-new" restoration. My host for the visit was Phil Douglas, who is the Executive Director of the "First Air Force One" restoration program.
The current effort is actually the second restoration of the Connie. In the mid-1980's Mel Christler received a call from the Smithsonian Institution informing him that the aircraft had been Dwight D. Eisenhower's first "Air Force One." Feeling strongly that it should be saved, Mel teamed with Harry Oliver, and using parts from VC-121B N608AS/48-608, they restored the Connie to an airworthy condition during 1989-1990. Beautifully polished and wearing "Columbine" nose art once again, the Connie made its first post-restoration flight on April 5, 1990. After attending a limited number of events, including the October 1990 Eisenhower Centennial Celebration at Abilene, Kansas and the May 1991 Open House at Andrews AFB, Maryland, the Connie was flown to Santa Fe, New Mexico and parked. She was flown to Scottsdale, Arizona in October 1998 and offered for sale at auction for $1.5M. With no serious offers forthcoming, she returned to Santa Fe where she remained parked until flown to Arizona in May 2003.
The aircraft's second restoration began in March 2015 when Dynamic Aviation bought the historic Constellation, which had been parked at Marana Regional Airport (formally Avra Valley Airport) since arriving in May 2003. After an intensive twelve-month "resurrection," she was once again airworthy. Under the command of Mel Christler's son Lockie, she made a three-day uneventful flight from Tucson to Dynamic Aviation headquarters in Bridgewater, Virginia. Arriving on March 23, 2016, the Connie was welcomed by a large group of enthusiastic well-wishers.
Under the leadership of Dynamic's Chairman and Founder Karl Stoltzfus, restoration began in 2017 when a new hangar large enough to house the aircraft was completed. Karl considered the aircraft "America's Airplane" and that it actually belonged to the American public. He thought it important that Americans be aware of the airplane's history and Dwight Eisenhower's legacy. His goal was to showcase it around the country at airshow events hoping the restored aircraft would inspire future generations to learn more about our history and motivate them to pursue careers in aviation.
Karl's first order of business was to disassemble the aircraft. Hundreds of sheet metal components, such as inspection plates and cowlings were meticulously cleaned, polished and repaired as necessary. Hydraulic lines and wiring were removed and replaced with unnecessary systems removed. Components such as hydraulic actuators, generators and electric motors were sent to specialty shops for rebuild. The interior was almost totally gutted with much of the main cabin sheet metal work having been completed. The interiors of the wings, empennage and belly of the aircraft were thoroughly cleaned, repaired as necessary and painted. Years of baked-on dirt and grime in areas such as wheel wells was removed using a dry ice blasting machine. The aircraft's R3350 engines were sent to Anderson Airmotive for rebuild, where the first engine is currently nearing completion. Due to the scarcity of Curtis Electric propellers, Karl decided to use more common and supportable Hamilton Standard propellers. Karl's goal was to transform the aircraft back to the way it had looked when it was Eisenhower's "Air Force One."
Work on the restoration proceeded at a steady pace until Karl's untimely demise in November 2020. With the project's leader gone, it was decided to step back, evaluate the project and formulate a plan on how to best move forward. I spoke to Karl's son Michael in July 2022 when he assured me that he shared his father's vision for the aircraft and that his commitment to complete the restoration was rock solid. With this, a 501.c.3 non-profit called "First Air Force One" https://www.firstairforceone.org/ was created in 2022 and received IRS certification in November 2022.
Delivered to the USAF in November 1948, 48-610 was one of ten C-121's (9 C-121A's and a single C-121B) converted to VC-121 VIP transports. She was President Dwight D. Eisenhower's primary aircraft from November 1952 to November 1954 and was the first presidential aircraft to use the call-sign "Air Force One." Replaced by VC-121E Super Constellation 53-7885 "Columbine III", she served as its backup until May 1955. Stripped of her "Columbine" nose markings, the Connie continued flying VIPs until April 1968 when she was retired and flown to Davis Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona for storage. She was one of five VC-121A's acquired by Christler Flying Service in May 1970 and, sometime during her two years at Davis-Monthan, one of her main landing-gear was removed and replaced with one from a Super Constellation. While the other four aircraft were converted to large acreage sprayers, because of the landing gear discrepancy, owner Mel Christler decided to use her as a parts donor. Relegated to a Tucson scrapyard, she was stripped clean by the late 1970's and by 1989 was sitting on her tail. Things did not look good for this historic aircraft.
During the past two years, work has continued on the project, albeit at a much slower pace than in prior years. With the formation of the non-profit, the focus has been on fundraising. Bill Borchers, who has been with the project since its inception, was assigned the job of keeping the project "warm." Bill has been responsible for much of the main cabin sheet metal work, including his amazing recreation of the fold-down bunk. A group of interns were brought on for the summer to help Bill with the project. Restoration will not be ramped up until enough funding has been raised to sustain the effort. Phil estimates that it will take 20 workers three years to complete the restoration. Any way you crunch it, that's a lot of dollars that need to be raised.
The non-profit has not been able to land a corporate sponsor for the project, which surprised me. I would think that aerospace giants such as Lockheed-Martin, United Technologies and Boeing would see the value of restoring this iconic aircraft but, to date, it's not happened. The money raised to date comes from a multitude of small donors, with the largest donation being $10,000 and the average donation being about $955. There's even a young man named Jonathan who donates $10 on the 9th of every month!
Two fundraisers are planned for the fall. A golf tournament is scheduled for October 7th and a gala/auction planned for November 4th. Eisenhower's granddaughter Mary Jean Eisenhower will be the guest of honor at the gala and a "Fly to Dinner with Mary Jean Eisenhower" event will be featured. It will include a VIP sightseeing flight in C-47 "Miss Virginia" prior to the event. Tours of "Columbine II" and both a silent and live auction are on the program. A unique polished Beech 18 cowling table and flap assembly table, both created by Bill Borchers, will be offered for sale at the auction. Mary Jean recently joined the non-profit board as have other "heavy hitters" including a number of retired generals.
Realizing the importance of sharing information and resources, Phil has reached out to the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the USAF and the Pima Air & Space Museum and is hoping these efforts bear fruit sometime in the future. The first two are large bureaucratic organizations and progress can be slow. Phil had more luck with the Pima Air & Space Museum when he received permission to access the interior of VC-121A 48-614 "Columbine I" which has survived essentially undisturbed since retirement with an original interior. The many photos he took will be very helpful in the restoration of "Columbine II."
In addition to Bill and the interns, volunteers have been helping out with a volunteer currently working on restoring one of the pilot seats. Phil welcomes any and all volunteers, but especially those with aerospace and mechanical backgrounds. In addition to technical help in the hangar, Phil is looking for volunteers to help with a multitude of administrative tasks related to operating a non-profit organization, such as organizing events such as the golf tournament and gala.
Due to the nature of Dynamic's business at Bridgewater, arrangements must be made prior to visiting but this hasn't slowed down a steady stream of visitors who come to see the airplane. Veterans who crewed Constellations back in the day visit occasionally and one recent visitor was David Mitchell, who is 100 years old and actually worked on 48-610 when the presidential/VIP fleet was based at Washington National Airport. He told Phil that part of his job was to run the engines of the VC-121 fleet, including "Columbine II."
Over the years I've met with a host of Dynamic employees associated with the project. It's always good to reconnect with them during my visits and this year Brad Holliday, Jason Burkholder and Jase Pence stopped by to say hello. All are looking forward to the day that the project resumes in earnest. I'd like to thank Dynamic Aviation for allowing my visit and especially Phil Douglas for taking time out of his very busy schedule to brief me on the current situation, future plans and to showcase the aircraft.
For more information about this worthy project, check out the "First Air Force One" website at https://www.firstairforceone.org/. Donations may be made using the website https://www.firstairforceone.org/give-new-layout/ or mailed directly to
First Air Force One
1402 Airport Road
Bridgewater, VA 22812
Ralph M. Pettersen
September 3, 2023
Photo Credits: Dan Grew, Robert G. Hufford, Steve Williams, Harry Oliver, Fred Barnes, Stephen Miller, Graham Robson, Boneyard Safari, Richard Allnutt, Dynamic Aviation, Ralph M. Pettersen
----Created 3 September 2023----