Air museum takes off
New Chico Air Museum hosts Wings of Freedom Tour
“It was the kid-growing-up kind of thing,” said Vacaville’s Jimmy Rollison, while sitting at picnic bench close to the tarmac of the Chico Municipal Airport. “The airport was between home and school, and that was the problem!” With a twinkle in his eye, the sunny, 50-something, world-traversing Federal Express pilot explained how he fell in love with airplanes.
Rollison volunteers six weeks of each year—his annual six-week vacation from FedEx—to fly a fully restored B-24 Liberator (currently, the only flight-ready B-24, of over 19,000 built during WWII) from air show to air show for the Collings Foundation’s annual 150-plus-stop Wings of Freedom Tour.
The plane with the signature twin tail that he flew into Chico from the tour’s previous stop at the Yuba County Airport in Marysville sat near us on the tarmac, along with its equally cherried-out traveling partner, a B-17 Flying Fortress. Both were in Chico to call attention to the newly opened Chico Air Museum.
“Probably never in my career will I be able to fly the only one of a plane left flying,” Rollison mused enthusiastically about “his” B-24.
All of the folks I talked with at the air museum, both on the last day of the airplane show and the following Saturday, spoke with an infectious child-like enthusiasm about their involvement as volunteers in promoting the history of airplanes and furthering the public interest in aircraft in general.
Docent Shirley Shannon, who retired in November from her job as a captain at Delta Air Lines (she is one of the first four women in the world hired as commercial airline pilots), is one of a number of volunteers who serve as museum guides. Shannon was seated at the reception desk in the tiny museum, surrounded by numerous aircraft-related displays, such as the one featuring photographs and copies of news clippings about the intrepid Thaddeus Kerns, “Chico’s Boy Aviator,” who perished in the wreck of his homemade biplane in 1913 at age 19.
The bubbly, blond, 58-year-old Shannon is quick to hop to her feet and engage visitors. She points out the closed door marked “Aviation Library—Work in Progress—Not Yet Open,” explaining excitedly that it is her project to create and supervise the soon-to-be aviation library/movie-viewing room.
“It will be an old-fashioned, 1920s-era room,” Shannon says, “full of aviation books and movies and CDs. There’ll be a couple of easy chairs where people can sit and watch [aviation-related] movies. … I want to have 1920s lights, maybe an old fan…” She adds passionately, “I want to not only collect the books [and movies, etc.], I want to put together a feeling.”
Museum board member/volunteer Brian Baldridge—the ex-president of the North Valley Pilots Association who works one of the shifts in the museum’s outdoor plane yard—displays the same likeable self-assuredness and love of aircraft as Shannon and Rollison. Baldridge accompanies me from the two-seat, lightweight Yakovlev-52 to the formidable Lockheed P2V-7 Neptune Cold War anti-submarine plane to the Soviet-built Antonov AN-2 Colt, providing interesting commentary along the way.
Baldridge expresses awed gratitude to fellow volunteer Doug Hagerman for re-doing all of the exterior fabric work on the Colt, a time-consuming feat that often required 15 additional men to help Hagerman flip over the unattached plane wings in order to work on the other side.
The silver fabric that looks like metal, I learned from Baldridge, is a throwback to the early days of aviation. “The fabric thing started with the Wright Brothers,” Baldridge informed me. “They covered the plane with cheesecloth. Using cloth is less labor-intensive than putting a million rivets into metal. And it’s easier to patch a hole in fabric than in aluminum.”
Pilot Baldridge points out, gesturing toward the perimeter of the plane yard, about 70 yards away, with a combination of boyish enthusiasm and professional savvy, “If we started this [airplane] up, we could be off the ground before we hit that orange fence!”