College wants to shed aviation relic

By SUSAN GALLAGHER/Associated Press Writer
May 17, 2009 at 12:17 a.m.

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Cold War spy plane with three tail fins and a hump on the fuselage needs a new home after being parked in Helena since 1981.

The retired EC-121, a version of which transported President Eisenhower from 1954-61, flew here 28 years ago for use in aviation maintenance classes. The military adaptation of the Lockheed Constellation taxied now and then, but mostly it has stood idle next to a hangar at the University of Montana's Helena College of Technology.

The college no longer wants the old Air Force plane, preferring to free its parking space for a campus construction project later this year. Some collectors who've contacted the school envision putting the plane back in the air — if they can get it from the government.

"It's pretty much like it was when it came in here in 1981," said college instructor Karl Kruger. "It's museum quality."

Introduced in the early 1940s, the futuristic Constellation dazzled the aviation world.

It was the first airliner with a pressurized cabin, allowing passenger flights at altitudes above turbulent weather, and the first to fly nonstop from one U.S. coast to the other. Lockheed Corp. built the Constellation when TWA majority owner Howard Hughes wanted a more powerful plane for the airline.

From 1943 to 1958 Lockheed built 856 of the airplanes, 330 of which went to the U.S. military. Some, like the plane in Montana, were equipped to snoop on enemy aircraft during the Cold War that followed World War II. The surveillance planes carried radar in domes atop and below the fuselage.

Parties interested in acquiring the Montana plane include Oregon's Evergreen Air&Space Museum, which is affiliated with Evergreen International Aviation Inc. and has Hughes's Spruce Goose, the largest plane ever built. The curator of the museum in McMinnville, Ore., said it wants to fly the EC-121 to Arizona — with Federal Aviation Administration approval — where the plane would be restored and then flown to Oregon for permanent exhibition.

Making the plane airworthy would take four to six months and the restoration a few years, curator Stewart Bailey said. Cost of the work easily could reach $1 million, he said.

"The airplane is very complete," said Bailey, who came to Helena and looked at it. "Unlike a lot of the airplanes we acquire that are basket cases, this one is all there."

With the plane still government property, any transfer must be routed through the U.S. General Services Administration.

Federal agencies ordinarily would get dibs, but because they forwent custody years ago when the college got the plane, priority shifts to the No. 2 group consisting of states, municipalities, nonprofits and museums, according to GSA spokeswoman Gene Gibson in San Francisco. They would have the opportunity to obtain the plane for the cost of moving it, Gibson said. Absent interest among them, the plane could be put out for public bidding, she said.

Disposing of the plane likely would take fewer than four months, Gibson said, adding the GSA needs still needs paperwork from the college to start the process. College officials say the documents have been sent.

Museums with Constellations include the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio. It has a radar plane with a career that included guiding a U.S. fighter into position to destroy a MiG-21 during the war in Vietnam.

Alex Capdeville headed the Helena College of Technology when the EC-121 came here.

"The faculty at the time wanted that thing," he said, adding that in retrospect it wasn't particularly useful for teaching.

"I think it was more nostalgia than anything else," Capdeville said.

Occasionally the plane has caught the eyes of people flying into the Helena Regional Airport next to the college and they've asked to see the inside, said instructor Kruger, who has obliged.

"If you've ever worked on them, you recognize the tail from anywhere," he said.

An old Western Airlines staircase provides access to the plane's doorway. Inside the aircraft, which has seen duty as a "haunted plane" for a Halloween fundraiser by the college aviation club, orange fabric on the seats shows wear, metal bunks still have pads, there's Morse code equipment and both the galley and the lone restroom appear serviceable. The cockpit looks as though a pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer could settle into the seats, buckle up and get to work.

College officials say the plane may be towed to the airport and left there temporarily if a new home isn't agreed upon by the start of the campus construction project, perhaps as early as this summer.


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