BAHF Acquires Greybull C-97s
Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation C-97 Acquisition
On December 5, 2021 I found myself on a United Airlines flight traveling to Billings, Montana from my home in central Florida. One might ask why a supposedly sane person would travel from Florida, where temperatures were in the 80ís, to Billings where there was snow on the ground and the overnight low was forecast to be in the single digits. The answer is that a team from the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation (BAHF) was traveling to Greybull, Wyoming to finalize the purchase of C-97G N1365N and two KC-97Lís and foundation President Tim Chopp had asked me to accompany them. Even with the frigid temperatures, how could this self-confessed Propliner ďgeekĒ say no?
Founded in 1988, BAHFís mission is to operate aircraft used in Berlin Airlift and create "Flying Memorials and Classrooms" with the purpose of educating the public about this pivotal, yet forgotten, event in world history. To that end, the organization acquired C-54E N500EJ Spirit of Freedom in December 1992 from Omni Aviation Associates and, after a four year restoration, it made its debut as a flying Berlin Airlift educational museum and exhibit. The aircraft was a familiar sight at air shows around the United States for 25+ years and even crossed the Atlantic in 1998 for a three-month tour of Europe to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. All that ended at 6:30am on April 13, 2020 when the aircraft was severely damaged by a tornado in Walterboro, South Carolina.
A replacement aircraft was found in New Smyrna Beach, Florida and, after eight months of hard work by a small group of dedicated BAHF members, C-54D N9015Q made its first post-restoration flight on April 24, 2021. The original Spirit of Freedom was de-registered and N9015Q was re-registered N500EJ. Repainted in the colors of the 60th Troop Carrier Squadron in October 2021, the new Spirit of Freedom has already made a few 2021 late season appearances!
The organizationís second aircraft, C-97G N117GA Angel of Deliverance, was acquired from Grace Aire in April 1996. While there are quite a few C-97 type aircraft in museums, BAHF acquired the aircraft out of a strong sense of responsibility to preserve at least one of the 888 built in an airworthy condition. Originally delivered to the USAF as KC-97G 52-2718 in April 1954, it was later converted to a KC-97L before being retired to Davis Monthan AFB in September 1976. Declared surplus and sold at auction in 1986, its civilian owners converted aircraft to a C-97G with the removal of the jet pods and aerial refueling equipment. After being seized by the U.S. Marshall Service, it was acquired by Grace Aire in 1988 for humanitarian missions in South America and for hauling fish in Alaska.
Four years after acquiring the aircraft, BAHF ferried the big Boeing from Moses Lake to South Big Horn County Airport in Greybull, Wyoming, where it underwent inspection, restoration and painting by Hawkins and Powers Aviation. It was painted in the colors of YC-97A 45-59595, the only C-97 type aircraft used in the Berlin Airlift. Departing Greybull in July 2001, the aircraft experienced an engine failure and landed at Aberdeen, South Dakota, where a replacement engine on loan from Hawkins & Powers was installed. By November 2001, N117GA had made it as far as Millville, New Jersey where it waited for New York City airspace to be opened up after the 9/11 attack. It was flown to Floyd Bennett Field in May 2002, where it would remain undergoing restoration until November 2017 when it was flown to Reading, Pennsylvania.
A number of training flights were successfully completed in 2018/2019 before the aircraft suffered a catastrophic failure of its #2 engine on June 4, 2019. The aircraft was flying from Hagerstown, Maryland to Reading, where it was scheduled to participate in the Mid-Atlantic Air Museumís WWII Weekend air show. It has been grounded in Reading since that time.
For the past few years, Tim has been in negotiations with B&G Industries President Karl Bertagnole regarding the purchase of former Hawkins and Powers Aviation C-97G N1365N Tanker #97. With 17+ airshows scheduled, 2020 looked like it was going to be a banner year for BAHF and Tim and Karl reached a tentative agreement for the purchase of the C-97G. All that changed with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the cancelation of the entire 2020 air show season and the April 2020 loss of Spirit of Freedom. Either event on its own would have delayed the purchase.
The plan was to meet up at Billings Airport, where I was arriving from Denver and Tim, along with his son Matt and foundation VP Kevin Kearney were arriving from Minneapolis. While I almost missed my connecting flight in Denver, the plan came together and after spending the night in Billings, we set off for Greybull the next morning. It was 7 degrees when we departed Billings and the roads were snow covered for the first half of our drive but luckily there was no snow in Greybull and temps warmed up to a balmy 29 degrees later in the day.
With a replacement C-54 now operational and air show bookings slowly rebounding, Tim felt it was time to finalize the purchase of N1365N. B&G Industries is an aircraft Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) company based at South Big Horn County Airport in Greybull, Wyoming. B&G had acquired the C-97G and KC-97Lís N29862 and N29866 as partial settlement in a lawsuit with Clay Lacy.
The C-97G had been converted to a firebomber by Hawkins & Powers and for many years was a familiar sight around the lower 48 and Alaska fighting wildfires. Lacy had purchased the three aircraft at the August 2006 Hawkins & Powers auction and contracted B&G to remove the retardant tank, which was an integral part of the fuselage. It was widely reported at the time that he wanted to paint it in period United Airlines colors and fly it on the air show circuit. Reportedly, one of the KC-97L aircraft was promised to a museum and the other was going to be used for spare parts. B&G completed the conversion and, for whatever reason, Lacy did not take delivery of the aircraft resulting in a 2008 lawsuit by B&G. Although a trial took place, an out-of-court settlement was reached where B&G became the owner of three C-97sÖ.something that probably wasnít in the companyís business plan!
As we drove further south I was relieved to see that the snow had disappeared. Apparently Greybull gets very little rain or snow and, at an altitude of almost 4,000 feet, can be considered high desert. The plan was to first meet with the airport manager Paul Thur before meeting with Karl Bertagnole later that afternoon. The airport leases space for aircraft storage and Tim was concerned about any issues relating to the storage of the soon-to-be-acquired aircraft at the airport.
Paul was waiting for us at the airport gate and very quickly it became apparent that his major concern was the possibility of the three aircraft becoming derelicts at the airport. This concern was the result of the ongoing struggle with a local businessman who has over the years acquired a number of aircraft and reportedly hasnít paid the airport for his leased space for many years. Some of the aircraft are former Hawkins & Powers aircraft, while some are aircraft that were acquired and trucked to Greybull, including two DC-4s from Mesa, Arizona and two M404s from Sheridan, Wyoming. Due to nonpayment, the county assumed ownership of 15 aircraft and an auction was scheduled this past summer to sell the aircraft as scrap. The owner filed a lawsuit to stop the auction and it has been on hold since then. The presiding judge held a hearing on November 30, 2021 and, as of our visit, hadnít issued a ruling. If, and when, the judge issues a ruling allowing the auction to proceed, Brian McDaniel of Wyoming Steel Services has been selected by the airport to clean up any of the 15 aircraft still remaining. In addition to these aircraft, B&G also stores a number of aircraft at the airport for customers and these are not part of the auction. I was allowed access to the airportís storage area and, for a complete listing of the 31 aircraft currently stored at the airport, check out the Greybull Wyoming Ghost Fleet article on this website.
With that done, next on the agenda was to inspect the three aircraft and check the associated paperwork. We headed to the B&G hangar, where Karl was waiting for us. The C-97G was parked on the hardstand outside the hangar and Karl opened it up for us. The aircraft appears to be in very good condition, both inside and out. As noted earlier, the integral retardant tank had been removed and a stock C-97 belly section had been removed from one of stored KC-97s on the field and transplanted onto N1365N. A multitude of spare parts are stored in the aircraft and the cockpit was totally intact, including checklists and the like. For all intents and purposes, the cockpit appeared like the aircraft had just returned from a flight.
Inspection of the three aircraft was completed the next morning and final details were ironed out regarding the sale before the paperwork was signed and a check handed over to Karl. BAHF was now the proud owner of an additional three C-97 type aircraft! The three aircraft were purchased for their valuable spare parts, especially the engines from N1365N. This aircraft has a rich post-military history as a firebomber and Tim is committed to make every effort to find a suitable home for it. The current thinking is that run-out engines and props could be installed to make it externally whole and suitable for display at a museum. The two KC-97Lís have little or no post-military history and will very likely be scrapped after they are harvested for their valuable parts. By acquiring these aircraft, BAHF has secured a considerable cache of spare parts to keep C-97G N117GA Angel of Deliverance airworthy for years to come. In addition, the current plan is to harvest components from the three aircraft and offer them for sale to the enthusiast community to raise funds for the restoration and operation of N117GA.
Winter has arrived in Wyoming, which is not a good time to be working outdoors on airplanes. Tim plans on returning to Greybull in May or June to begin harvesting engines, props and other valuable components. First on the agenda will be the four engines from N1365N, with at least two being shipped back to Reading for installation on N117GA. With this accomplished, the organization can concentrate on restoring the aircraft back to an airworthy condition, which Tim is confident will happen in 2022. His optimism is based on the organizationís previous multi-year restoration effort and the 2017/2018 flights. When this happens, Angel of Deliverance will be the only airworthy C-97 aircraft and the plan is to have it join C-54D Spirit of Freedom on the air show circuit.
With the sale complete and my mission to photograph the stored aircraft achieved, it was time to head back to Billings, where we would catch flights home the next day. To follow the progress of the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation's Douglas C-54D and Boeing C-97G, visit the organizations website at spiritoffreedom.org, the BAHF Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter.
Iíd like to thank Tim for including me on this adventure and the folks at South Big Horn County Airport and B&G Industries for their hospitality.
Ralph M. Pettersen
Photo Credits: Jeff Miller, Russ Wagner, Michael Prophet, Alex Staruszkiewicz, David Jones, Ruud Leeuw, Boeing, Ralph M. Pettersen
----Created 8 August 2022------