A low hum penetrated the dry Arizona air.
The silver wings of a plane sprawled 126 feet, casting a black shadow on the cracked, rust-colored earth. Four engines dotted the wingspan, each with three propeller blades that dwarf a full-grown man. Looping mustard-yellow letters on the airplane’s snout spell “Columbine.”
The 1948 Lockheed C-121 Constellation shuttled President Dwight Eisenhower around the globe for his first two years as president. It was the first Air Force One.
Sixty-five years after Eisenhower dismounted it for the last time, the dolphin-shaped aircraft roared for nine hours until it sputtered to a halt on the tarmac of its new home in rural Bridgewater, Virginia.
The pilot, Lockie Christler, said its transcontinental flight went off without a hitch.
“It was like Eisenhower himself was there watching over us,” Christler said.
Pieces of Columbine II now spill across the concrete floor of a hangar — a garage for airplanes — at Dynamic Aviation, a 750-acre airpark nestled in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The main chamber of “Connie” has been stripped of its lavish presidential amenities. Its wings have been severed to conserve space. Towering chain-link fences form a kitty-cornered blockade to separate it from the classified military aircraft on the other side.
“They’re restoring it to better than new,” Christler said.
In its heyday, marble floors lined the plane’s belly. VIPs like former presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and Queen Elizabeth II strode along its 116-foot body. Cradled in a corner was a mahogany desk where Eisenhower penned his 1953 United Nations speech, “Atoms for Peace,” which detailed his concerns about the nuclear arms race.
Christler’s father purchased Columbine II and four other Connies from the Air Force in 1970 to spray crops for fire ants, unaware of the plane’s historic significance. He harvested Columbine II’s engines and transplanted them into its four sister airplanes.
Ten years later, the Smithsonian called. Columbine II is a historic landmark.
The plane, now unfit for crop dusting, became an “expensive liability” for the Christler family, who wanted to preserve its grandeur but couldn't afford it. An unsuccessful attempt to auction it led to Christler’s last-ditch effort, advertising the plane for sale in an aviation magazine. It was otherwise destined for scrap.
Dynamic Aviation owner Karl Stoltzfus picked up the magazine in 2015. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from Christler’s ad.
“I knew I was supposed to buy that airplane,” Stoltzfus, a self-proclaimed history buff, said. “It was just that clear.”
A little under $1.5 million later, Eisenhower’s plane was added to Dynamic Aviation’s 140-aircraft fleet.
Stoltzfus and his crew of 10 spent a year prepping Connie for its voyage east. The team flew from Virginia to Arizona’s Marana Regional Airport outside Tucson every three weeks. Desert critters had burrowed a home onboard. Mountains of dust littered the once regal aircraft. The 18-cylinder engines’ fuel and hydraulic hoses were corroded. Christler described it as a “plumber’s nightmare.”
Columbine II required 8,000 hours of repairs before the Federal Aviation Administration finally cleared it for takeoff.
The city of Marana ushered Columbine II into the sky amid fanfare. Mary Jean Eisenhower, the 34th president’s granddaughter, led the crowd surrounding the plane in prayer.
And finally, a “seamless” liftoff.
“It’s an adrenaline rush when you first take off,” Christler said. “You prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
Several hundred people greeted the silver bird when its wheels touched down in the Shenandoah Valley. Christler sighed in relief, but Stoltzfus knew the real work was about to begin.
The buzzing of drills and shouting of hammers echo within the now-empty cavity of the plane. A crew of 15 labors on Columbine II daily.
Dynamic Aviation’s director of flight safety, Rod Moyer, said he’s honored to be a part of the project, but the work is “grueling.”
“When a guy first comes to work here, for the first week, you just can’t believe what you’re having the opportunity to work on,” Moyer said. “But after a week of having your arm up in a hole and scraping on that same piece of aluminum, you sort of forget. It will all come back when she starts running.”
While the plane’s engines are being rebuilt in Idaho, lead project manager Pasqual Bude said his focus is on cleaning every scrap of metal on the aircraft. The cleaning crew uses a method similar to sandblasting to erase the Arizona crud. Instead of sand, the mechanics spray with dry ice because it evaporates and doesn’t damage the plane’s skin.
“Every day, you have to fight every screw, every bolt — but that’s what makes it fun,” Bude said.
Another crew is completely rewiring the airplane — hundreds of miles of wires worth. Eighty percent of the wires are concentrated in the wings.
Next, the four new engines will be mounted and the cabin reupholstered. Stoltzfus said the whole project will probably take three or four more years.
Finding spare parts for a plane this old is the biggest challenge for Stoltzfus. Maintenance manuals have been lost. Lockheed’s faint, withering blueprint drawings on microfilm are difficult to read. Mechanics sift through hundreds of pages of Lockheed’s notoriously complicated schematics.
“A guy has got to be a little nutty to do this,” Stoltzfus said. “It’s a big job.”
The goal is to construct a museum hangar in a few years to permanently house the airplane for public view. Several times a year, Dynamic Aviation will fly the plane to events around the country so more people can see it.
“We look at this airplane with the knowledge that we are custodians of it,” Stoltzfus said. “It really belongs to the American public. It’s not just an airplane. It’s a piece of their history.”
Contact Brice Estes at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.