Monday, April 1, 2019

The Thunder Pig of Beaver County

Playing Hooky

Six years ago, I took a day off from work for car maintenance in the morning and flying in the afternoon. After landing at the Beaver County Airport (KBVI) for the first time, I enjoyed a truly spectacular calzone and explored the Air Heritage Museum.

As much as I enjoy seeking out new places, I also enjoy returning to those places after a few years to see what has changed. That was my mission for the day.

Cloud Surfing

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
01 Apr 2019 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - BVI (Beaver Falls, PA) - SDC 4.1 1933.8

It is a shame that sliding across the cloud tops makes no discernible sound. I think it should. I imagine it to be the sound of a sled on newly fallen snow combined with a subtle background "whoosh".

I logged some momentary IMC time, my first of the year, climbing through a thin cloud layer that separated the choppy atmosphere below from the smooth air above.

Along the way, breaks in the clouds revealed hints of the Finger Lakes framed by a dormant landscape. Someday soon, that landscape will transition from brown back to lush, living green. I can hardly wait.


With ice disappearing, the Allegheny Reservoir spanning the New York-Pennsylvania border was well on its way to spring.

The massive lidless eye of the Seneca Pumped Storage facility peered directly upward at the lazily passing clouds.

Beaver Falls, PA

I descended back through the cloud layer on approach to Beaver County Airport. Though I evidently dodged any ice present on the way down, I returned to restive air. One jolt put me on track to smack the overhead console with my head again, but my seatbelt intervened just in time. 

Consistent with previous experience, Beaver County was very active with a nimbus of training aircraft orbiting the field. Tower instructed me to follow the river south, intercept the final approach course, and follow a Cessna in to land.

Who's the Boss?

I parked at 2:00 in the afternoon and departed on foot in search of a late lunch.

"Sorry Goose, but it's time to buzz the tower."

From Piper Street to Airport Drive, it was a short walk to Sal's.

I indulged myself in "The Boss" calzone packed with ham, pepperoni, salami, sausage, and hot pepper rings. I am not a compulsive food photographer, but I found the tasty calzone simply too compelling. Its brief existence in this world deserved to be captured for posterity.

And it was brief. I was very hungry.

Air Heritage Museum

Six years ago, I described the Air Heritage Museum as "modest". That is still the case. No admission is charged, but I contributed a donation. Little had changed with the museum itself, but the hard work of its volunteers was evident in progress made on several projects.

I have heard folklore about radios with switchable crystals, but having been raised on solid state equipment with 25 kHz frequency spacing, I am frankly at a loss as to how they worked. Even my ancient-appearing KX-170B radio is quite modern compared to this artifact.

Southeast Michigan, represent! Too bad that the Air Heritage Museum does not have the rest of the B-24 Liberator to go with this instrument panel.

In short order, I connected with Dave, a volunteer who generously shared his knowledge and time with me for the afternoon.

The museum's T-28 Trojan is being painted and I was struck by the appearance of the large radial practically spilling out of the tightly cowled business end of the airplane.

Good progress is being made on the Fairchild 24 restoration. This airplane is one of many submarine hunters that patrolled the eastern seaboard during WWII.

Both wings are completed, one skinned with Poly-Fiber, the other a mere skeleton. The unskinned wing is more interesting to look at, if far less functional.

This in-line Ranger engine came out of the Fairchild. I still think that these inverted in-line engines look ungainly compared to their radial or horizontally-opposed counterparts. I understand that the geometry is driven by where the thrust line needs to be while keeping the cylinders from blocking the pilot's view, but it seems like hydraulic lock is probably a huge problem.

Spittin' Distance

In the southwest corner of the hangar, a private individual is painstakingly crafting a Spitfire nearly all in wood. Though difficult to see in the photograph, the craftsmanship is outstanding, particularly the elegant elliptical planform of the wings.

An Allison 1710 engine is installed in the nose. It's no Merlin, but packs more of a punch than the Lycoming O-320 in Warrior 481.

The museum's 1950s era British Provost jet trainer comes with an interesting story. It seems that a fellow living near Latrobe, PA was offered a bonus to be granted either as cash or in the form of an airplane. He chose the airplane, which raises a lot of questions for me about the exact means of its delivery to his house. However it got there, it sat in his yard for many years and now resides at the museum.

"Really?" I asked Dave while peering into the Cold War-era cockpit. Dave gave something of a combined nod and shrug. "I won't touch a thing," I assured him. Air Heritage did not need a hole in their hangar roof.

The Provost's long fuselage aft of the cockpit is all engine. I am not a turbine expert, but this looks like the type that excels at converting jet fuel into noise.

This is the nose to a B-25 gunship variant, much like the Air Zoo's. I am amused by the nose art. many legs do beavers in Beaver County have? Is this like Springfield's three-eyed fish?

"If You Don't Like What You See Here, Get the Funk Out"
(with apologies to Extreme)

Another significant project in the works is this restoration of a rare 1930s era Funk Model B.

Can You Spare a Couple Thousand Horsepower for an Airplane Down on Its Luck?

There's nothing quite like having spare Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines just lying around. I am perpetually in awe of these machines, their complexity, and the amount of power that they produce.

This L-21 (military designation for a liaison aircraft based on the Super Cub) served in Italy for many years.

Though not affiliated with the museum, here's a Fouga. Just because.

Air Quest fueled Warrior 481 for the return flight and I got a ride back to the FBO in the fuel truck to settle my bill. That was a first.

Beyond Thunder Pig

The Air Heritage Museum's most impressive aircraft primarily live outside and are temporarily relocated to a parking apron nearer the runway.

When I visited in 2013, this F4 Phantom was a decidedly non-photogenic pile of airplane parts on the ramp.

It is now immaculately restored for static display.

Next to the Phantom is the museum's Fairchild C-123 Provider cargo ship, the only one of its type still flying, the aptly named Thunder Pig.

Air Heritage actively flies Thunder Pig to airshows around the Northeast and it is arguably their most recognizable claim to fame.

This portly beast of an airplane is well-named.

There is something familiar about that other airplane over there...

The pods immediately outboard from the piston engines (P&W R-2800s) once contained jet engines used to coax the C-123 airborne when heavily loaded or launching from short runways (or, more likely, both).

My aviation OCD created a strong impulse to place both props in the same orientation, but I kept my hands to myself. It is never a good idea to get handsy with other people's propellers.

Florida Refugee

Many northerners move south when they retire. This Douglas C-47 bucked the trend and moved north after retirement from mosquito abatement flying in Lee County, Florida.

The museum's C-47 photographed February 18, 2013

It was a new arrival when I visited in 2013, still wearing her State of  Florida colors and plumbed for spraying mosquitoes.

With a little research and a new paint job, the team at Air Heritage have returned this WWII veteran to her glory days as "Luck of the Irish". She recently received an airworthiness certificate in the Experimental category.

Ed "Elmo" Frome captained the museum's C-47 during the war. He was still alive when the airplane came to the museum and was able to fill-in many blanks of the airplane's story.

I particularly like what Air Heritage has done with Luck of the Irish. She is not just a random old airplane. She has a story and a crew. She is a veteran. She is unique. Air Heritage has resurrected her from anonymity.

Whenever I see an F-15, I flash back to my childhood playing "F-15 Strike Eagle" on my Tandy 1000 in the 1980s.

Tower was in rapid fire mode on my departure, managing several aircraft in the pattern. I waited at the hold line for three aircraft to land, then Tower extended the downwind legs of the other aircraft in the pattern to allow me to launch IFR. I probably had a release time from Pittsburgh Approach that Tower was trying to match.

The ride home was smooth and generally quiet. I like to think that every time I go aloft, I leave behind a bit of my stress and daily worries.

Thanks to Dave and the other volunteers at the Air Heritage Museum. An afternoon spent around old airplanes and people who appreciate them is an afternoon well-spent and I thoroughly enjoy visiting these types of grass roots museums.


  1. As always, excellent pictures. One of my favorites, the F4 Phantom, best looking fighter ever. Great to see another C47 saved. I have been following the former Ice Pilots, Mikey McBryan on plane savers, they are saving a C47 that flew in the DDay invasion.

    1. This one was too young to fly on D-Day, but it participated in the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Varsity, where it towed gliders as part of the largest single-day troop drop in history.

      Locally, we have W7, a C-47 that did participate in D-Day. They flew her back to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. We had a member of the crew come talk to the club about it - it sounded like the experience of a lifetime.

  2. As usual Chris, excellent article.
    Gary, Any Network/Info on Plane Savers? Would like to know if I can get the show. Loved those Buffalo shows.

  3. 'The Ruptured Duck' is the name of one of the aircraft in the movie 30 Seconds Over Tokyo (it was on TCM last night!)

    1. Hi John - yes, Dave from the museum mentioned this as well. I never saw that one, but
      I really should!