Columbine II Restoration - June 2020

Columbine II Restoration Update

June 2020

Nestled in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is the town of Bridgewater, which is home to Dynamic Aviation. The company operates a 100+ strong fleet of Dash 8 and King Air aircraft around the world on spraying and military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) contracts. Company founder and chairman Karl Stoltzfus is an avid history buff and has collected a number of vintage aircraft over the years, including Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first presidential aircraft. VC-121A 48-610 Columbine II is currently undergoing an amazing multi-year restoration at Bridgewater Airpark and I had the privilege of visiting the company in June.

My first in-person encounter with Columbine II happened by sheer chance back in May 1991, when I attended the annual Andrews AFB Air Show. I had no idea that the aircraft had been restored and was totally shocked when I saw it parked on the tarmac. I toured the airplane and talked to one of the crewmembers, who told me about its recent restoration. The aircraft was one of five C-121As sold to Mel Christler at a military auction in May 1970. Mel converted the other four to large acreage sprayers and 48-610 was set aside to be used as a source of spare parts in support of the other aircraft. By the early 1980s it had been stripped clean and was sitting on its tail when Mel found out that it was Eisenhower’s airplane. Mel joined forces with Harry Oliver and they bought VC-121B N608AS at the October 1985 Globe Air Auction for its engines and other parts needed to restore Columbine II. The restoration was complete in 1990 with the first post restoration flight happening on April 5, 1990. The airplane made a few airshow appearances in 1990-91 before being flown to Santa Fe, New Mexico and parked. In October 1998 it was flown to Scottsdale, Arizona and offered for sale at auction with a reported reserve price of $1.5M. No acceptable bids were received and the aircraft returned to Santa Fe, where it sat until being flown to Avra Valley Airport (now Marana Regional Airport) in May 2003 and again parked. Advertised for sale in May 2005, there were no takers until Karl Stoltzfus arrived on the scene in 2015.

Authorities are not usually big fans of large transport aircraft parked at their airport for long periods of time and, hard as it is to imagine, Columbine II was in real danger of being scrapped when Karl found out about its plight from an article in the November 2014 issue of Warbirds International magazine. Karl hoped that someone else would take the ball and run but, when this didn’t happened, he stepped up and purchased the airplane in May 2015. A small team was dispatched to Arizona to get the airplane ready for the flight back to Bridgewater and, a year later on May 21, 2016, the aircraft departed Arizona under the command of Mel Christler’s son Lockie. After a stop at the Mid-America Air Museum in Texas, the aircraft arrived safely in Bridgewater the afternoon of May 23rd. Columbine II is the only primary presidential aircraft that isn’t preserved in a museum and I was shocked to hear a few years ago that the National Museum of the Air Force had expressed no interest in adding this unique piece of presidential history to its collection. It’s a bit sad that it was left up to a private citizen like Karl Stoltzfus to step up and save the airplane from being lost forever.
The Stoltzfus family aviation heritage goes back to 1936 when Karl’s father founded Chris Stoltzfus and Associates, which specialized in agricultural and insect spraying. The company was based in Coatsville, Pennsylvania and operated a fleet of vintage Travel Air, C-122 Avitruck, DC-3, Stearman, TBM, FM2, T-6 and Beech 18 aircraft until the early 1980’s. In 1967 Karl and his twin brother Ken, along with their wives and children, set off for Harrisonburg, Virginia to attend college at Eastern Mennonite College. In order to support their families and pay for college, the brothers formed K&K Aircraft and Avotek Suppliers. They bought scrap metal at DoD auctions and smelted it down for resale. After graduating in 1972, Ken moved to Ohio where he later founded Preferred Airparts, while Karl remained in Virginia focusing his attention on K&K Aircraft.

Karl bought Bridgewater Airpark in 1974 and in 1980 began spraying with Beech 18’s. By 1990 the company fleet had grown to nine aircraft, including five Beech 18’s and four DC-3’s. The Beech 18’s were later supplanted by Westwind Turbine Beech 18’s which in turn were replaced by King Airs. In 1997 the company was renamed Dynamic Aviation and today Karl’s son Michael is the company’s President and CEO. Michael shares his father’s strong sense of responsibility for the preservation of Columbine II. While they might legally hold title to the aircraft, Karl and Michael see their role as stewards and feel that Columbine II actually belongs to the American people. In fact they refer to this unique aircraft as “America’s Airplane.” Once the restoration is complete, it will be flown to airshows where it's their hope that the airplane will inspire future generations to learn about our country’s history and perhaps motivate them to pursue careers in aviation or other related fields.

In 2004 Dynamic began ISR work for the U.S. military and this continues to represent a significant portion of the company’s business. The company has grown to nearly 800 employees worldwide and is currently involved in ISR, airborne data acquisition, fire management, aerial application and sterile insect application work around the world. It currently operates about 100 multi-engine turboprop aircraft based at multiple U.S. and overseas locations. Company headquarters at Bridgewater Airpark includes administrative offices, a pilot training facility, multiple hangars and specialty shops including a PT-6 engine shop, sheet metal shop and avionics shop. Realizing the need to separate the work being performed on the client and legacy aircraft, the company set up a Legacy Department dedicated to working on these aircraft. A new hangar/museum complex is currently under construction at the south end of the airport and will house the collection. The steel structure has already been erected and the complex will include a large hangar, meeting rooms, office space, shop areas (avionics, electrical, sheet metal, hydraulics, etc.) and library when completed in 2021. The legacy fleet includes the following aircraft.

  • Beech Travel Air 4000 – N469N
  • Lockheed VC-121A – N8610/48-610 Columbine II
  • Beech G18S – N18G
  • PT-17 (as a N2S-4) – N17N
  • Beech E18S – N1400E
  • North American T-6G – N12V/39-788
  • Douglas C-47 – N47E/0-30665 Miss Virginia
  • Howard DGA-15P – N5605
  • Super Legend Cub – N14C

    While visitors are welcome, tours of the restoration hangar must be scheduled in advance due to availability of staff, the sensitive nature of work being performed on the military contracts and COVID-19 concerns. After signing in with the receptionist and being issued a visitor’s pass, Karl and Rod Moyer greeted me and we headed off to the hangar. Rod oversees legacy fleet flight operations and would be my escort for the tour. The restoration project is currently housed in Dynamic’s newest hangar, which is also home to the legacy aircraft. It was under construction during my visit last year and is only a temporary home for the aircraft until the museum facility is complete. Seems like every year during my visit I notice new buildings and hangars along with an ever expanding employee parking lot out front.
    Columbine II arrived from Arizona in airworthy condition and essentially free of corrosion but still needed lots of TLC to bring it back to its former glory. Karl’s goal is to restore the aircraft to how it appeared while in service as Eisenhower’s Air Force One back in 1954. The restoration began slowly and the first three years were spent, to a large extent, figuring out what they didn’t know. The project has progressed to the point where everything is coming together and there is light at the end of the tunnel. It would not be out of the question for the aircraft to be finished in 2 ½ to 3 years. Efforts to date have focused on cleaning the exterior of the aircraft; cleaning, inspecting, repairing and polishing a multitude of sheet metal components; replacing hydraulic lines; rewiring the entire electrical system; cleaning and repairing the wing interiors and fuel tanks; replacing all flap and control surface bearings and fittings; and replacing all flex hoses, seals and sealant.
    Work is normally performed inside the hangar but the Connie had been moved outside the week prior to my visit so it could be cleaned with a dry ice grit blaster. The process removes dirt and paint in an ecologically friendly manner without damaging the fuselage skin. After taking photos of the aircraft, we went inside and were joined by Rocco Minitch and Bill Borchers. Rocco is a project lead on the restoration and Bill is responsible for reconstructing the interior. Bill recently completed the fabrication of a working Pullman style bed using photos, clues left in the aircraft and some vintage Lockheed drawings. The airplane has three more beds in the main cabin and one in the crew area but only one bed will be fully functional for demonstration purposes. Bill explained that Lockheed used lots of wood in the interior for non-structural parts, including shims for spacing the cabin walls/ceiling and heating ducts. This worked well in 1948 but by today’s standards is considered a fire hazard and the wood is being replaced with phenolic material. Rocco said that almost all hydraulic tubing has been or will be replaced and all electrical wiring has been replaced.
    In addition to storing many of the parts that have been refurbished over the past four years, the hangar includes office space for the Legacy Department and dedicated work areas for the various disciplines such as electrical, hydraulic, sheet metal and avionics. With the exception of the Travel Air, all of the legacy fleet was in the hangar including Howard DGA-15P N5605, which is undergoing restoration. It was owned by Karl’s father Chris from 1947 to 1950 and later by automotive icon Carroll Shelby. The Travel Air was Chris Stoltzfus’ first airplane and is located in another hangar on the airport. In addition, a complete Super Connie flight engineer console was in the hangar and will be refurbished for use as a procedures trainer and template for restoring Columbine’s flight engineer panel.
    I spoke to four interns that were working on an outer wing section riveting nut plates. A lot of work on the project is performed by interns that are recruited from the local area. The project has become a training program of sorts for the company with a number of interns “graduating” and moving on to jobs working on the Dash 8’s and King Airs. This has been a win-win partnership for both the interns and company. The interns are given the opportunity to gain valuable experience while working on the restoration and the company benefits from a motivated group of young workers willing to do some of the “grunt” work. Rod gave me a quick tour of C-47 Miss Virginia and she was looking very nice. Karl has replaced the original seating on the right side of the cabin with luxury leather seats from a ulfstream. The cockpit has also been totally upgraded with modern instrumentation. There are at least four outside cameras and two flat screen monitors mounted in the cabin so that passengers can view the camera inputs.
    Before ending the tour, Brad Holliday joined us. I had met Brad two years ago and he has overall responsibility for the restoration project. He said there were about a dozen employees currently working on the restoration but expected the pace to pick up during the next 12 months. I asked about the engines and he said that the first engine is at Anderson in Idaho for overhaul. Anderson will overhaul the core engine with Dynamic supplying almost everything firewall forward including the QECs, fuel injection system, baffles, rear fire seals, accessories, etc. A total of five engines will be overhauled with four being installed on the aircraft and one spare installed on a QEC. In addition, components will be fabricated and be available for buildup of a sixth engine. Karl has decided to convert the aircraft from the original Curtis Electric to Hamilton Standard propellers. Both types of props were used on Constellations and the Dutch Aviodrome Museum blazed the trail when they converted their C-121A to Hamilton Standard props in 2004.

    I asked the group if they were working to a master plan with weekly, monthly and yearly plans mapped out and they said that such a plan didn’t exist. Directions come from Karl on what he wants the team to work on so essentially the master plan is in Karl’s head. I asked them what the major accomplishment and areas of focus were during the past 12 months and what they thought would be the focus for the upcoming 12 months.

    Previous 12 Months
  • Completion of the fully operational Pullman sleeping berth
  • Interior disassembly, reassembly and modernization
  • Restoration of outboard wing panels
  • Major structural and sheet metal repairs
  • Replacement and repair of corroded components
  • Replacement of the majority of hydraulic tubing
  • Total rewiring of electrical system
  • Component overhauls
  • Overhaul of the avionics and hydraulic systems

    Upcoming 12 Months
  • Complete overhaul of engines at Anderson and the in-house fabrication of engine accessories
  • Install engines on aircraft
  • Continue restoration of cabin interior
  • Begin the wiring and plumbing modifications required for conversion to Hamilton Standard props
  • Complete restoration of wings
  • Begin installation of refurbished parts currently stored on shelves

    I have no doubt that the airplane will be spectacular when the restoration is complete. Karl demands perfection and he has gone as far as replacing the fiberglass radome extension fairing with an aluminum fairing and has recently decided to replace any sheet metal component that had been patched! Assigned the civil registration N9465 in 1970 when sold to Mel Christler, the aircraft was recently assigned the more appropriate N8610, which mirrors its military serial number.
    With the tour coming to an end, I asked Rod if we could stop by the aircraft storage area where the remnants of three former military Super Constellations are stored. I especially wanted to see the forward fuselage of NC-121K BuNo 141292, which Karl acquired in August 2018. This aircraft was the last U.S. military Constellation in active service and flew its final mission for the U.S. Navy on June 11, 1982. Ferried to the Florence Air and Missile Museum in Florence, SC two weeks later on June 25, 1982, it was subsequently damaged by a grass fire and eventually abandoned when the museum folded in 1997. Its landing gear, engines and rear cargo door were salvaged and used for the restoration of L1049E N1005C at the Air Mobility Command Museum. That airplane is now on display at the museum as a C-121C. Other parts went to the Constellation Historical Society's C-121C N73544 in Camarillo, California. The remainder of the aircraft was scrapped in 1999 with the forward fuselage section going to a collector named Brian Hicks in North Carolina. The forward fuselage of EC-121T 53-535/N51006 and the entire fuselage and wings from C-121G/R7V-1 54-4062/N105CF are also stored on the site. N105CF was acquired by the Super Constellation Flyers Association (SCFA) in September 2000 and flown from Santo Domingo to Tucson, Arizona for restoration in early 2001. The restoration was suspended in August 2002 and it was stripped of its engines and most of its vital components to support C-121C N73544/HB-RSC, which SCFA had acquired to replace the aircraft. Karl bought the remaining hulk in October 2015 and transported it by road to Bridgewater.

    I’d like to thank Karl Stoltzfus for hosting my visit and for making key employees available to talk to me. I’ve made it an annual summer event since the aircraft arrived in 2016 and this was my fifth visit. I’d also like to thank Sarah Hedrick for helping to coordinate the visit and Rod Moyer, Rocco Minitch, William (Bill) Burchers and Brad Holliday for their time showing me the airplane and answering my many questions. They’re a great team and I look forward to my 2021 visit to Dynamic Aviation.

    Ralph M. Pettersen
    June 2020

    Photo Credits: Gerard Helmer, Harry Oliver, Bob Shane, Richard Allnutt, Ralph M. Pettesen

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