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First Air Force One aircraft fades at Arizona airport

TUCSON, Ariz. — The aircraft that once spirited President Dwight D. Eisenhower on cross-country voyages now sits in a field that's part of Marana Regional Airport, decaying under the relentless glare of the sun.

The first plane to be designated as Air Force One is fenced off from public viewing — alone and nearly forgotten on a 10-acre parcel.

"I think it's one of these big secrets that, really, few people know that it's out there," said Steve Miller, airport manager. "It's sad that it's just sitting out there, considering its history over the past 70 years."

Marana Regional Airport, which opened in 1943, is on 600 acres. One way it generates revenue is by leasing parcels of that land.

It's home to the derelict former Air Force One: The Columbine II, a Lockheed VC-121 Constellation 48-610, which was built in Burbank, Calif., in 1948. The next year it was converted to carry VIPs and redesignated as a VC-121A.

The plane was named after the state flower of Colorado, the home state of first lady Mamie Eisenhower. In 1953 it became the official presidential aircraft until it was replaced in 1954, when it became the primary backup aircraft.

After a brief civilian stint with Pan American, the aircraft carried Eisenhower for a final time on Oct. 25, 1959, on a trip from Augusta, Ga., to Washington, D.C. It served as a VIP transport at Washington National Airport and Maryland's Andrews Air Force Base before it was retired and flown to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in 1968. It was stripped of its identity and fitted with mismatched landing gear.

Mel Christler of Christler Flying Service bought the aircraft — along with four others, in a 1970 surplus auction — not knowing its true identity. He hoped to convert it to an aerial sprayer, but the plane would not fly due to the landing gear problem.

Christler learned of the plane's history in 1980 when Smithsonian Institution curator Robert Mikesh tracked down its whereabouts and contacted him. Christler and some partners completed a $150,000 restoration of the Colum-bine in 1990, reintroducing it to the public and participating in the Eisenhower Centennial celebration in Abilene, Kan.

After appearances in air shows, it was parked in Roswell and Santa Fe, N.M., until 1998. Efforts to sell the aircraft at auction were unsuccessful, and it was parked at the Marana airport in 2005 in a lease agreement.

The aircraft has no hangar to shelter it from the sun's rays, which are gradually breaking down the aircraft inside and out.

"In its glory days it had marbled floors," Miller said. "Now it just looks like any old, beat-up aircraft sitting there."

The plane is owned by Christler's business partner, Santa Fe resident Harry Oliver. Timothy Coons, a contractor who serves as the plane's caretaker, is looking for a museum willing to take it and restore it.

"Like any machine like that, the interiors are slowly degrading because of the heat," he said, saying it would take $200,000 and 30 days of work by a team of mechanics to restore.

"We're trying to find a good home," Coons said. "It's not doing any justice just sitting here."

pvillarreal@azstarnet.com
 

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