George Kegebein (left) checks the fuel on the Boeing 307 Stratoliner at Allegheny County Airport. Crew chief Nate Andrews of Seattle (right) performs pre-flight checks on the Boeing 307 Stratoliner during its stay at Allegheny County Airport.
Thursday, August 7, 2003
Vintage Boeing Stratoliner embarks on its final voyage from Allegheny County Airport
By Ann Belser
It seems sweetly appropriate that the final takeoff in the life of the Boeing 307 Stratoliner was from the Allegheny County Airport, which was built in the same era as the plane and with the same art deco sensibilities.
The plane was on its way to the Smithsonian Institutes Steven F. UdvarHazy Center at the Dulles International Airport annex of the National Air and Space Museum, which is to open in December.
But bad weather Tuesday in Washington, D.C., forced the crew to land the vintage craft in West Mifflin to wait out the thunderstorms. Those storms extended the flying life of the plane by one day. When it lands at Dulles, it will take on a new life, as a relic of an earlier time when flying was elegant and only for the wealthy.
The Clipper Flying
Cloud, as the plane was dubbed, has had an incredible life.
The luxurious, silver Stratoliner was one of the last pressurized airplanes produced with rectangular windows. Later aircraft designers realized that rounded windows had more structural integrity and could withstand the pressure of high altitudes.
The plane that landed at the county airport started its flying life on a Caribbean route. At the time, a one-way ticket on the Clipper Flying Cloud was $1,000, which is the equivalent of $12,000 in todays dollars. Two years later, it was taken over by the Army to fly officers to South America and London.
It returned to commercial service on the round-trip route between Bermuda and New York City in 1946, but was sold in 1954 to the Haitian air force where it was dedicated to serving the dictator Francois Papa Doc Duvalier.
The Smithsonian acquired the airplane in 1972. By that time, it had been bought and sold many times. Boeing mechanics discovered it in 1991 at the Pima Air Museum in Tucson, Ariz., where the Smithsonian was storing it. The interior had been gutted and the engines had to be rebuilt.
There were cats living in the wings, said Pat DeRoberts, of Olympia, Wash., a retired Boeing engineer who helped rebuild the plane. The engines hadnt been run in 25 years.
The mechanics restored the engines and checked the structural integrity before the first test flight in 1994, which ended because of a problem with the propellers.
The second test flight ended when a bearing failed in the No. 4 engine.
It blew up on us, DeRoberts said.
My first landing was an engine-out landing, said Paul Leckman, 61, of Bothell, Wash., who is one of only three people in the world certified to fly the plane.
Leckman, a Boeing test pilot, flew the plane on its last flight yesterday. DeRoberts was his flight engineer.
In June 1994, the plane flew to Seattle. It was moved in 1995 to the same hanger where it was originally built. The restoration, done mostly by retired Boeing employees, took six years and was completed in 2001. In March 2002, during a test flight, the plane ran out of fuel and was ditched into Elliot Bay.
Boeing officials dont say it ran out of gas; instead, explained company spokeswoman Cindy Wall, they prefer to say there was too much air in the fuel tanks.
Boeing decided to salvage the plane once again, and another restoration started in June 2002 and took a full year.
The plane is now as it once was. A row of leather seats lines the left side. The opposite side has private compartments with Pullman-style club chairs that can be folded down into berths. The interior of the fuselage is covered in fabric specially woven for the craft, which has maps of the world with Pan Ams logo.
The cockpit features skylight windows so the navigator can find his way by the stars using a sextant. Even the original radio, that uses vacuum tubes, has been restored to working order, though the crew now uses a modern radio that had to be installed because the old one operated with a Morse code key.
We worked hard on it, DeRoberts said. We did a lot of grunt work on it, shining it up, repairing the seats, repairing the engine cowling.
When Leckler radioed in to Corporate Air Tuesday at the Allegheny County Airport, he identified the plane as a Boeing 307 and said he was 25 miles out and would need gasoline and transportation for 15 people.
Dave Sestili, the line service coordinator for Corporate Air, thought Leckler was kidding about the plane.
When the Stratoliner landed it was surrounded by mechanics who had never seen anything like it in Allegheny County. The curiosity factor was still apparent yesterday morning as airport workers walked around the plane and private pilots stood at the terminal fence looking at the craft.
Then the engines roared to life once again and the plane lifted off for the 90-minute flight to Dulles, where it will remain grounded.
Ann Belser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1699