Birds of freedom

This Saturday is Museum Day, when admission to a number of local museums is free. At the McClellan Aviation Museum, on the grounds of a decommissioned Air Force base in North Highlands, many restored military aircraft await your inspection.

Photo by Larry Dalton

They once flew higher and faster than anything ever made by humans. They were often the last things that soldiers ever saw before their lives were snuffed out. The aircraft that once saved the lives of downed pilots and stranded soldiers now sit on a tarmac at the McClellan Aviation Museum, 3204 Palm Avenue off Watt Avenue.

“I like to think of them as the ‘birds of freedom,’ ” said Al Brown, director of the museum.

The museum opened in 1986 and has 33 military aircraft on display. The majority of those aircraft saw action during an era in which engineers were still figuring out the science of aerodynamics at high speeds. Because the engineers were, pardon the pun, flying by the seat of their pants, many of the planes possess an artistry that defines the jet age. Planes such as the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger, with its needlepoint nose and delta wings, and the rocket-like Lockheed F-104B Starfighter, with wings so thin they required plastic protectors over the edges so ground-crew members wouldn’t split their heads open, look like they are breaking the sound barrier while still sitting on the tarmac.

The old McClellan Air Force Base was officially closed in July 2001. Opened in 1939 on the eve of World War II, the base served with distinction for 50 years as an armament depot for aircraft heading out to the Pacific theaters. The North American B-25 Mitchells of Doolittle’s Raiders were outfitted and fine-tuned at McClellan, and a fine exhibit at the museum documents the work done there before they were flown to Alameda Naval Air Station on the San Francisco Bay and loaded onto the aircraft carrier the USS Hornet. The twin-engine bombers took off from the ship’s flight deck 550 miles from Japan and successfully surprised the Japanese with the first attack on the Japanese homeland during World War II.

The museum has two fine World War II-era aircraft: a Douglas C-53 Skytrooper and a huge, four-engine Douglas C-54D Skymaster. The Skytrooper in the museum’s collection completed three glider-towing missions during the D-Day invasion in Normandy. Beautifully restored by the museum staff and complete with invasion stripes, the Skytrooper was seized by the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1984. What stories that plane could tell.

And talk about stories to tell—volunteers, mostly retired Air Force men, staff the museum. Dick Updegraff, the museum’s volunteer coordinator, is a large, gregarious man and a retired master sergeant who still has that “Sarge” vibe about him when he talks about his work at the museum.

“You don’t have to be military; you can be a civilian,” he said, leaning dangerously back in his chair. “If you are interested in aviation, we are more than happy to have you here. Most of our volunteers are from WWII, Korea and a couple of ’Nam veterans.”

Photo by Larry Dalton

The volunteer staff keeps the museum in smooth working order. The exhibits are clean, and the planes are shiny and nicely laid out. “We now have crew chiefs assigned to each plane,” said Updegraff. “Their responsibility is to take care of the plane, keep it clean and presentable for the public—inside and out.”

The McClellan Aviation Museum is an educational facility. Its three buildings house exhibits about the history of the base and about the mechanics of flight, with hands-on displays of cockpit simulators and ejection seats. Display cabinets hold flight helmets, oxygen masks, suits, mess kits, multiple model displays, various guns and exhibits on the many civilians who worked at McClellan. A Taylorcraft L-2M Grasshopper spotter plane hangs at a dangerously low approach, surrounded by 17 early airplane engines—some more than 6 feet long. Lifelike mannequins display the history of Air Force uniforms, from the 1917 Signal Corps uniforms through the familiar U.S. Air Force blues. There is also a large audio-visual display about Doolittle’s Raiders, as well as maps and battle paintings.

Korean War-era aircraft are well-represented at McClellan, with first-generation American silver jet fighters that either still look futuristic or look laughably gauche—like the fat Republic F-84F Thunderstreak; the MiG-destroying North American F-86 Sabre; the dog-nosed North American F-86 Dog Sabre; and a Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star that, with its straight wings and tail, seems out of place.

The McDonnell Douglas F-4C Phantom II, with tipped wings, was used extensively in Vietnam, as was the Republic F-105D Thunderchief, the museum’s example of which was nicknamed “My Karma.” The F-105 is the largest single-seat plane ever built. Its bomb load was double that of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress used in World War II. Of the 610 F-105 planes built, half were lost in Vietnam. “My Karma” has the distinction of downing one of the first MiGs in the Vietnam conflict.

Since the fall of the Eastern bloc, Soviet-designed Mikoyan-Gurevich planes, known commonly as MiGs, have become more available to air museums, and McClellan has two: a Czechoslovakian MiG-21 and the ultra-rare MiG-17. Although the Soviets weren’t known for their stylistic designs and couldn’t build a decent washing machine, they knew what they were doing with their sleek and stylish MiGs.

N ot all the aircraft at the museum are platforms for weapons. There is a fine collection of rescue aircraft, such as the Grumman HU-16B Albatross amphibious Coast Guard plane that could land on water, snow and ice as well as on a standard runway. The two helicopters are the H-215 banana-shaped Vertol-Piasecki H-21C Workhorse, the first tandem-rotor helicopter to enter service, and the 60-foot long Sikorsky CH-3E Jolly Green Giant that was used extensively in Vietnam and could carry 25 fully equipped soldiers. These aircraft saved hundreds of lives and were a beautiful sight to a stranded soldier or aviator.

“Our C-53 was in the D-Day invasion,” said Updegraff. “That F-105 shot down a MiG-21. And our A-10 out here, that was shot up pretty bad in Desert Storm. So, we have planes from each facet of wars, and each one has its own history.”

One of the largest aircraft on exhibit at the museum is the medium-range, variable swept-wing bomber the General Dynamics FB-111A Aardvark. The giant, two-seat aircraft is most famous for the 1986 attack on Libya; only 76 were built.

Photo by Larry Dalton

The last propeller-driven combat aircraft in the Air Force, the Douglas A1E Skyraider, sits with its bomb-laden wings folded in the upright position. Originally a Navy plane, 150 were acquired by the Air Force; all were outfitted at McClellan for use in Vietnam.

The museum is negotiating with the North Highlands Recreation and Parks District to pick up 10 acres with a 150,000-square-foot hangar on the northern border of the former base. The idea is to bring inside some of the more rare aircraft and to unite the displays, offices and gift shop under one roof; now, they’re scattered throughout three different buildings.

“We’d be able to do the things that aviation museums should be able to do: fly-ins, feature their aircraft,” said Brown. “Plus, the building would afford us the opportunity to move more into the education side of museums because that’s what is going to be our main focus. Hopefully in the new building, we will be able to have a shop right there where some of the restoration work is being done, so people can see the work in progress.”

Brown also is working on a plan to offer free hangar space for private owners of vintage aircraft and a plan to acquire some retired California Division of Forestry (now the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) aircraft and a Huey helicopter. The long-term goal is to become the California State Aviation Museum.

“With a little bit of work from the community,” said Brown, “we should be able to pull that off.”

The museum also is receiving a Grumman F-14 Tomcat from the Navy.

The largest and most stunning aircraft in the collection is also the most relevant plane to the base, the EC-121D Warning Star that was stationed at McClellan from 1953 to 1977. The military version of the Lockheed Super Constellation, it was the very first AWACS (airborne warning and control system) type plane. With its twin radar domes, it looks like a pregnant submarine with wings. It carried six tons of electronic gear and a crew of 16.

At the exit of every museum is the gift shop and archives. The cramped archives room has 3,800 volumes of technical and military training books, as well as aeronautical history books and biographies. The amazingly well-stocked gift shop has everything an airplane enthusiast would want to purchase.

On February 1, Sacramento’s Museum Day, the McClellan Aviation Museum will hold its annual open-cockpit day. Museum staff hope to have more than one-third of the museum’s aircraft open to the public. A visit offers the rare chance to climb aboard an old war bird or peek at the controls of a jet fighter to see up close just how cramped those old planes were. As with all the museums in the area, admission is free on Museum Day.

Once the front line of our country’s defense, the aircraft of the McClellan Aviation Museum are now resting at ease for all to appreciate.