Chasing Warbirds at Bradley

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Driving north up I-91 in Connecticut presents some “Targets of Opportunity” if you are hunting for Warbirds. Set the GPS for “Bradley International Airport” (KBDL) north of Hartford and exit at CT-20 then go two miles to CT-75 north. In a mile you will be at the approach lights for Runway 33-15. If the wind is right, pull over to one of the parking lots and watch some of the airliners on final. Proceed up 75 for about two miles and turn left at the orange sign for “New England Air Museum”. At that turn you will be right at the end of Runway 24-6, the main runway at BDL at 9,510 feet, another good spot for inbound traffic. If you then proceed down Perimeter Road a bit you will come to the Connecticut Fire Training Center; if you’re lucky, you will then see them burning down that concrete tower one more time. A little further down the road past the FAA ATC Tower you will come to the entrance to the New England Air Museum (NEAM), home of about 100 restored aircraft. But before you do that, keep going down the road and you will come to the End of Runway 15, ideal for more plane spotting. Drive a little further past FedEx and you will come to the Main Gate for the CT-ANG Air Base, home of the 103rd Airlift Wing, “The Flying Yankees”.

The 103rd has had a long and storied life and recently came back to life again in October of 2013 when the first of eight C-130H “Hercules” transport aircraft arrived. The Hercs re-established the 103rd AW as again being a vital component of the USAF nationwide Tactical Airlift capability and the base is now secure in that new found mission. The Base Realignment and Closing Commission (BRAC) in 2005 decided to close down the flying mission of the 103rd Fighter Wing at Bradley that, at the time, had about 20 assigned A-10 Warthogs on the Ramp. All the Hogs were reassigned by 2008 and the real estate at the 103rd was in real danger of becoming a new private FBO, even with their new ground mission of engine repair. Then in 2008 the Governor, the State Legislature, and the local commercial and residential community protested loudly to the USAF and Congress to reconsider the BRAC order to close the flying mission of the 103rd. The local voices were heard and the Air Force assigned four white C-20A VIP Learjet transport aircraft to the 103rd. And now, minimally as it was, the Wing regained its flying mission and was then called the 103rd Airlift Wing. The C-21’s were in fact an interim solution and the US Air Force had planned to make the 103rd AW into a C-27J Alenia Aermacchi “Spartan” base with at least 8 aircraft. The C-27 looked like a two engine Herc and had great short unimproved runway capability. Then, the Air Force, after spending $567M buying 21 Spartans, abruptly cancelled the C-27J Program. Those planes, already purchased, went to the Boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB to bake in the sun. These planes were later reassigned to the USCG and the US Special Operations Command. Even gloomier, the four C-21 Learjets were reassigned and left Bradley in September of 2013. For a while the ramp at Bradley again had zero aircraft. And again, behind the screens, the Connecticut State Legislature, the Governor and the Connecticut State Adjutant General worked hard to re-establish a flying mission for the 103rd AW at Bradley. And like a Phoenix Rising Out of the Ashes of a Bare Base, by 2014 all eight C-130H Hercules had arrived at Bradley to re-establish its mission as a vital link to the USAF’s Tactical Airlift Mission.

Now, back to the Main Gate at the 103rd AW: Here sit just inside the Main Gate, three beautifully restored Gate Guards that could qualify as Warbirds in our “Warbird Hunt”: an F-102A “Delta Dagger” (0-61264) in air-superiority grey with a blue lightning tail; an A-10 Warthog with a black lightning bolt on the nose with a low-viz grey side background fuselage on a high hard stand; and an F-100D Super Sabre “Hun” (CT-53805) in a light cammo lizard green color scheme.

If you now backtrack for about half a mile you will come again to the entrance to the New England Air Museum (NEAM), home to 100 vintage airplanes. This museum is slowly regaining its position as one of the nation’s premier air museums, and, very similar to the rocky recent history of the nearby CT-ANG 103rd AW, it is coming back from oblivion when in 1979, the museum was nearly totally destroyed when a rogue F-4 tornado cyclone, something you don’t normally see in Connecticut, destroyed nearly every plane and every building that NEAM had in 1979. In those days the museum was located on the opposite side of the Airport along route 75. It was amazing and unfortunate that of all the place to hit around the Bradley area, the tornado squarely hit the Bradley Air Museum, as it was called then, destroying 30 aircraft, nearly the museum’s entire collection of large aircraft, and did major damage to the museums hanger buildings. The tornado struck without warning at 3 PM on October 3, 1979. The storm caused 3 deaths, 500 injuries, was rated an F-4 on the Fujita Scale with 207 to 260 mph winds at the core and caused $442M in property damage ($659M in 2017 USD) and incalculable costs to the 30 rare vintage museum aircraft, all as it traveled along a 11.3 mile south to north path of destruction parallel to Route 75. It hit the Bradley Air Museum literally as a bullseye target. It still ranks as the ninth most destructive tornado in American history.

It was almost the Perfect Storm. The storm actually formed in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that morning. This storm was an unusual setup for a significant tornado associated with a warm front near a low pressure center. A thunderstorm cell formed south of Long Island around 10:20 AM and became a supercell some time later after interacting with a surface low pressure center. It turned north as a left-moving supercell, meaning it moved left with respect to the mean atmospheric flow. Left moving super cells are very rare, as cyclonic storms usually turn to the right of a mean low. It was unknown whether this leftward movement was due to an atmospheric iteration or a terrain-induced movement as the storm moved north straight up the Connecticut River Valley. No tornado warnings were issued before the storm struck. This was later determined to be because of missing atmospheric sounding data, although a severe thunderstorm warning was issued at 2:57 PM, but very few people received the warning in time. The tornado roughly followed Route 75 just east of the Bradley International Airport directly towards the center of the Air Museum. The Airport’s weather station reported a wind gust of 87 mph a mile away from the Museum as the storm passed. F-4 winds were estimated to be over 150 mph as the tornado hit the center of the Air Museum. A United Airlines flight with 114 passengers on board was attempting to land as the tornado was passing the Airport. The pilot saw the tornado and was able to abort the landing just in time. The tornado then crossed the northern portion of the Airport, where the Bradley Air Museum (NEAM) was located. More than 30 large vintage aircraft displayed on the ground outside were destroyed with many more damaged. The Museum’s large hanger was also rendered unusable. The tornado, with 3 inches of rain and several downbursts continued due north to Westfield 5 miles north of the Massachusetts line. Something not remembered was that the storm destroyed most of the Connecticut Army National Guard’s Aviation Unit (2.Bat/104.Av/B.Co/Det.1/HHC) consisting of about 20 Sikorsky CH- 54B (S-64) “Tarhe” Skycranes and Bell UH-1B Iroquois “Huey’s” all sitting in the open on their ramp just north of the Air Museum on Route 75. In less than 8 minutes the museum grass display area consisting of 30 pristine aircraft was reduced to a pile of aeronautical junk metal. Twenty-three large aircraft were totally destroyed and most of the remaining were severely damaged.

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The outdoor aircraft were literally tossed around like toys. Although many of the 30 large outdoor airplanes were carefully positioned to face towards the northwest into expected prevailing winds to minimize buffeting in the event of more common hurricane force winds, this effort did little in the face of the tornado’s wrath. For example, the largest airplane in the outdoor exhibit, the Douglas C-133, was lifted into the air and dropped on its back, its tail ripped off as if it were paper. Many of the 23 totally destroyed large aircraft could never be replaced because most of the only other examples of their kind are already in other air museums. Four aircraft suffered only minor damage: The Boeing RB-47A; the Douglas A-3; the Martin B-57 and the Vought-Regulus Missile. Four were salvaged: the Grumman E-1; the North American B-25; the Boeing B-29 (“Jack’s Hack”), now the pride of the NEAM and now in its own private hanger); and the Boeing BOMARC Missile. Seven were potentially salvageable (and were later): the Republic RF-84F, Grumman TBM; Lockheed P2V; Lockheed F-104; Boeing B-17; Douglas A-4; and the Convair F-102. Two were questionable: the Grumman HU-16B and the Northrop F-89 (both were fixed and now sit in the NEAM yard!). Very sadly, the following were total losses in October of 1979: Douglas C-54; Lockheed T-33; Douglas C-124; North American F-86; Vought F8U; Sikorsky CH-37; Fairchild C-119; Lockheed Constellation; Douglas C-133; Douglas F4D; Convair T-29; Boeing Vetrol YHC-LA; Sikorsky H-19; and a Convair F-102. As is the case with an air museum, the Air Force and the Navy retain ownership of most military aircraft and those aircraft can be recalled (though unlikely). This was the case with the RB-47 about 10 years ago.

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The Bradley Air Museum indoor facility, an original WW2 Hanger situated north of the outdoor exhibit, fared better. The volunteers and staff on duty at the time of the tornado were unhurt, and most of the 30 additional planes inside only sustained minor damage, but one indoor plane was totally destroyed with falling debris. The hanger was rendered unusable. Literally picking up the pieces, Museum workers assembled the surviving Warbird aircraft into a temporary outdoor exhibit. It wasn’t until 1981 that the museum was able to repair additional airplanes, restore damaged airplanes, and acquire through donations and manpower a new exhibit building, then known as the Civil Aviation Building, that the museum was able to fully reopen to the public on October 2, 1981. Only a few of the large planes were restorable – the Boeing B-29 Superfortress; the B-25 Mitchell and the Boeing RB-47 Stratofortress. The RB-47 has since been acquired by the US Air Force and is a Gate Guard somewhere. A French Sud Aviation SE-DAI Caravelle passenger plane, acquired after 1981, was scrapped about 5 years ago, an unfortunate decision by the museum. The indoor / outdoor collection of 60 pre-tornado aircraft has been enhanced since 1981 to now be almost 100 aircraft at NEAM, with 65 displayed at any one time and the rest in storage or being restored.

The Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Society, the parent organization of the NEAM, was founded in 1959 and the museum has been in its current location since 1981. The museum currently has six buildings: Civilian; Military; 58th Bomb Wing Memorial with the fully restored B-29 Superfortress “Jack’s Hack”; two restoration hangers and one storage hanger. Besides the airplanes, the museum also has an extensive collection of engines, instruments, aircraft parts, uniforms and personal memorabilia. Within this collection are some special planes: the last remaining four-engine American flying boat, the Sikorsky VS-44A, donated by the previous owner, actress Maureen O’Hara and restored to its previous luxurious condition; an expertly restored B-29 Bomber; Silas Brooks Balloon Basket (1879) which is believed to be the oldest surviving aircraft in the US; the Bunce-Curtis Pusher (1912); the oldest surviving Connecticut-built (in Bridgeport) airplane, the Sikorsky S-39; and an a Kaman K-225 helicopter (Kaman is a Connecticut-based helicopter and aerospace manufacturer originally located at Bradley).

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On a recent visit, there were 9 outdoor aircraft seen: the Martin RB-57A Canberra light bomber; the Kaman K-16B of 1962, an experimental VTOL; the Douglas F4D-1 Skyray of 1958; the Lockheed TV-2 (T-33) Shooting Star of 1955; the US Army C-7A Caribou of 1962; the Grumman E-1B Tracer; the Northrop F-89 Scorpion; the A-3D Navy Skywarrior; and the HU-16E Albatross. There are currently 21 aircraft in storage, including such favorites as the F-4D Phantom II; the A-10 Warthog; the F-14A Tomcat; the HU-25 Falcon; and the B-25 Mitchell Bomber. There are two aircraft in full restoration: the DC-3 and the Burnelli CBY-3 Loadmaster. The Military Hanger is the most popular. It currently contains: P-47 Thunderbolt; A-26C Invader; F-100A Super Sabre (CT-ANG); UH -1B Huey (CT-ANG); K-225 helo; HH-43F Huskie helo; F-104C Starfighter (479th TFW, Hann AFB, Germany, holds altitude record 92,000-feet, speed record Mach 2.5); DR-1 Red Baron tri-wing; CH-54B Skycrane (1962, CT Army NG); XF4U4 Corsair; Seasprite SH-2F; A-4D Skyhawk (VA-153); F-4D Phantom II (66-0269). Peeking into the Restoration Hangers I saw such stars as the: A-10 Warthog (CT-ANG); F-14 Tomcat; HU-25 USCG Falcon; DC-3 and the B-25. And there are two stars inside: the Boeing B-29 “Jack’s Hack” of the 58th BW in its own private hanger and the Sikorsky VS-44A Flying Boat “Excambrian” of the American Export Lines and a Lockheed 10A that Emilia Earhart flew into oblivion in the Pacific on July 2, 1937.

But my three favorite planes from years ago are sadly gone from the NEAM: the Sud Aviation SE-210 Caravelle Airliner from 1955 (scrapped); the Republic F-105 Thunderchief (unknown); and the Boeing RB-47 (returned to the US Air Force). But, all told, Bradley offers quite a collection of Warbirds and some fascinating aviation stories. Go Take a Trip Up!!!

 

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