It was hot and we were tired. The last of our Pepsi and corn dogs had been finished off hours ago and all we had left was an ipod on 4% and a few more hours of driving towards our final destination - the Grand Canyon.
And then we saw it creeping towards us over the dusty horizon. The Lockheed VC-121A Constellation stood out between the red rocks and half dead cacti like an abandoned spaceship. Dominating the skyline for miles, 'Bataan' as it is fondly known is the major attraction at the Grand Canyon Valle Museum 40G.
Only 22 miles south of the Grand Canyon National Park, the museum was built with the sole purpose to preserve aviation history, inspire interest in aircraft and aviation, for education and to honour aviation pioneers, veterans and the aircraft they used. Seven US dollars gets you into the museum which houses over 40 different aircraft, many of which are still in a flyable condition today.
The favourite is definitely the Constellation. With a strengthened floor, a large cargo door at the back of the fuselage and the ability to fit 44 passenger seats or 20 stretchers for medical evacuation missions, ten C-121A's were delivered by the end of 1948 and early 1949 at West over AFB as part of the Atlantic Division of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS).
Eight of the Connies became part of the Berlin Airlift, making the most continuous Atlantic crossings to England and Frankfurt and covering over 5 million miles to deliver much needed cargo.
After the Airlift operation finished the Constellations were used for high speed VIP transport within the US Air Force and then reassigned to various VIPs within the Air Force. 'Bataan', the Constellation at the museum, named after a peninsula in the Philippines, became the personal aircraft of General Douglas McArthur, a Supreme Commander of Allied Powers in the days of the Korean War.
Missions with Bataan included a meeting with President Truman on Wake Island, 17 missions in Korea and it was also the last stronghold of MacArthur's American forces defending the islands against the Japanese in 1942. The pilot and aircraft made their last flight together back to San Francisco after MacArthur got fired for making political statements.
After going from hand to hand, Bataan was finally retired in 1966 and was assigned to NASA for use in the Apollo space program were it was renamed NASA 422 and refitted with computers, tracking equipment other communications gear used in the space program. In 1970 when the Apollo program was cancelled, the Constellation was sent to the Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker where it stood on display for over 20 years. Thereafter it was giving to the Planes of Fame Air Museum at the Grand Canyon Valle Museum where it still stands today but is undergoing restoration and being prepared for flight once more.
Other aircraft on display inside the museum is the 1917 J1 Standard Spirit of Grand Canyon. With a wingspan of 43 feet and 10 inches (13,35 m), 26 feet and 7 inches (8,1 m) and length and weighing 2025 lbs (918,5 kg), the Standard J1 became a substitute basic trainer for pilots in the USA serving in the first World War from 1916 onwards. The two seat tandem biplane was built from wood with wire bracing and covered in material and acted as a stopgap to supplement the Curtiss JN-4, the true favourite of trainers. The J1 was disliked by instructors and students alike because of its vibration-inducing and unreliable four-cylinder Hall-Scott A-7a engine and even though production of the JN-4 and A1 was two to one, the number of fatalities was one to seven. Because of this many J1's were never even taken out of their factory delivery crates.
The 1943 Stinson V-77 Gullwing or 'Reliant' is a three-place high-wing monoplane with a fixed tailwheel and can be powered by a variety of radial engines. The aircraft has a wingspan of 41 feet and 7 inches (12,68 m), a total length of 27 feet and 11 inches (8,48 m), had a cruise speed of 154 Knots and could carry 4 passengers plus a pilot. Between 1933 and 1941, 1 327 Reliants were built and used by the US Air Force as a utility aircraft (designated UC-81) and trainer (designated AT-19). They were also used by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force for light transport and communication. After WWII they were all sold off to civilians as the Vultee V-77.
World War II era aircraft such as a Messerschmitt ME109 and a Japanese Zero are on display, a truly rare sight.
Other aircraft also include a Airmaster Cessna C-165, a T28 Trojan, A Newport 17 and many other iconic aircraft.
So if you ever find yourself driving along the Flagstaff highway towards the Grand Canyon and see the old Conny inviting you for a stop, do it. It is well worth the angry children roasting in the car.