Faded old bomber is airlifted home for restoration

SUSPENDED AVIATION

May 29, 1992|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Staff Writer

Out of the nearly cloudless, bright blue sky, the faded aluminum aircraft descended with graceful dignity like a grand dame entering a cotillion ball. No. 021446 was coming home at last.

The RB-57A twin jet engine reconnaissance bomber was built 35 years ago by Martin Marietta. Members of the new Glenn L. Martin Aviation Museum arranged to have the aircraft brought to Glenn L. Martin Airport yesterday, a scant half-mile from the Martin Marietta plant.

The museum will open its doors to the public for the first time at the end of the summer.

No. 021446 could not make its last flight on its own.

Stripped of its engines and most of its instruments, the 19,000-pound plane arrived in a harness under a giant Pennsylvania Air National Guard Chinook helicopter.

On the ground, just off the airport tarmac, Bob Scott watched the B-57 approach.

Memories flooded back to the retired Martin Marietta engineer -- such as the time an accommodating Air Force pilot let him take the controls of a B-57 over Japan.

"I wasn't really supposed to fly the plane, but I can tell you, it was a great feeling when I did," said Mr. Scott. "It handled so smoothly, it was a beauty to fly."

The 64-year-old Bowleys Quarters resident trained Air Force personnel to operate and maintain the aircraft. His job took him to Air Force bases in the states and overseas.

"This is the first time I've seen one airborne since 1962 in Pakistan," Mr. Scott said.

A few yards away, Arthur L. Long Jr. stared intently as the helicopter lowered the aircraft onto the tarmac.

Mr. Long, 69, a retired technical writer for Martin Marietta, wrote the pilot's handbook for the B-57.

"What a thrill this is! Isn't she a beauty," said Mr. Long.

Just then, a wind draft blew the B-57 on its side as the craft was about to touch down. The left wing tip hit the tarmac, providing drama to the airlift and more than a few lumps in the throats of the 50 museum members and aircraft buffs on the ground.

The Chinook pilot quickly took the helicopter up. Ever so slowly, the B-57 righted itself. A few minutes later, No. 021446 made a perfect three-point landing. "That was almost her last flight in every sense of the word," said a relieved Mr. Long.

Martin Marietta began building the B-57 series in the mid-1950s, when it got approval to copy the design of the British Canberra bomber.

The first B-57s were used primarily to take reconnaissance photos and monitor military activities behind the Iron Curtain in Europe and in Asia. Later models saw service as light tactical bombers in the Vietnam War.

The Air Force retired most of its B-57s in the mid-1970s.

No. 021446 saw active duty with the Air Force (museum officials aren't sure where) before being sent to the Kansas Air National Guard. For the last 20 years, the plane sat rusting in a field at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.

With a sister RB-57A, the No. 021446 was to be used for target practice to test new weaponry.

When members of the Glenn L.Martin Aviation Museum heard that the two planes were headed for the scrap heap, they asked Aberdeen if they could have the aircraft for display.

"We spent the last year taking out the engines, stripping as much of the aircraft as possible to lighten its weight for the airlift," said Gene DiGennaro, the museum's treasurer. Several hours after No. 021446 came home, the other B-57 took the trip from Aberdeen to Martin Airport.

Museum members hope to have both aircraft restored by the end of the summer, when the museum plans to its doors for the first time.

Mr. DiGennaro said it was unclear how the aircraft will be displayed. Museum officials want to display the planes outside the museum, which is on the Martin Airport grounds, but that will be up to the State Aviation Administration.

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