“A lump in my throat, and tears in my eyes.”
That reaction, voiced by retired C-5 loadmaster, Chief Master Sgt. Jon Andrews, no doubt was shared by many Wednesday afternoon at the Air Mobility Command Museum on Dover Air Force Base.
The occasion was the arrival of C-5A Tail No. 69-0014 – aka Zero-One-Four – one of the oldest of the giant airplanes in the U.S. Air Force inventory. The plane is scheduled to be formally retired and added to the museum’s collection by November.
It was an event that had been delayed for months, but one whose arrival was heralded by the ghostly image of the plane as it appeared out of low, overhanging clouds at 2:42 p.m., just 10 minutes behind schedule.
It was a majestic entrance for a majestic bird, one that made history almost four decades ago when it was used in a test project to drop and launch an intercontinental ballistic missile. The program was a show of American ingenuity and technological superiority in that it proved the United States could counter Soviet aggression by quickly shifting nuclear weapons anywhere, at will.
The Air Force tapped Zero-One-Four, which was stationed at Dover AFB at the time, for the job.
The mood in the museum was one of anxiety and anticipation. Museum Director Mike Leister and Deputy Director John Taylor spent much of the morning coordinating the event while their group of all-volunteer museum guides showed visitors around and explained what would be happening.
Periodic reports from base air traffic controllers kept everyone informed as to the plane’s progress. Zero-One-Four had left its home base at Memphis, Tenn. at 12:45 p.m., bearing the call sign “Elvis 1,” in honor of the city’s most famous resident.
The crew took its time flying to Dover: the aged Galaxy had last flown nine months ago, and they were treating it gently.
By 2:10, Taylor announced Zero-One-Four was just west of Baltimore, headed out across the Chesapeake Bay. A little more than 30 minutes later, the Galaxy punched through the cloudbank overhanging the base, its landing lights ablaze in the distant haze.
The 190-ton craft touched down on one of the base’s more distant runways, tossing up curls of smoke as its tires hit the runway at approximately 120 mph. Zero-One-Four then revved up its engines and took off without stopping, an exercise pilots call “touch and go.”
It’s a standard training maneuver, but for this occasion it was a salute from the plane’s crew to those watching. The four-man crew flew the plane around again, repeating the maneuver, then brought it around one last time.
This time, there was no takeoff. Spoilers up as it traveled down the runway, Zero-One-Four dropped to taxing speed, then slowed to a relative crawl as it moved off the main runway.
Page 2 of 3 - Its long career, it seemed, was finally over.
One more time
As awe-inspiring as it was however, many in the crowd were disappointed the plane hadn’t touched down on another runway, one only a few hundred feet away from the museum. There, the view would have been much better.
That’s exactly the scenario Leister had asked be relayed to the flight crew. But, as things sometimes do, signals got mixed, and the Galaxy’s crew never got the message.
Accepting this turn of events, Leister asked one of his staff to call the tower and instead ask the crew taxi Zero-One-Four past the crowd as a last salute. But there was no response; it continued to sit on the far end of the runway, as if the aircraft itself were thinking over the request.
Then a message came back: the crew wasn’t just going to drive Galaxy past the museum; they’d decided to do one more fly-by.
“He’s gonna take off and come around again!” announced museum staff member Silas Stephen. “Awesome!”
It was an unparalleled decision, but one appropriate for the day.
Zero-One-Four taxied back to the runway, and with a whine familiar to anyone who knows how the engines on the old “A” model sound, climbed back into the air. Once again it approached the runway from the east, but the crew first put it into a left turn and then banked right.
Shutters clicked furiously as the plane made a stately pass past the museum, its 26 wheels only 120 feet above the ground. The move was a delicate balancing act of slowing the aircraft almost to a standstill while still moving just fast enough to keep it in the air.
Zero-One-Four then circled back to the more distant runway and again touched down, its final, final flight complete – almost. Safely on the ground, the crew brought the aircraft past the museum, where the crowds waved and some jumped up and down
One crewman sat in the plane’s upper hatch as he returned the greetings. Inside the cockpit, the pilot and co-pilot also waved at the crowds.
And then it was over. Zero-One-Four moved to its parking spot on the other side of the base, where it will eventually be drained of fuel and fluids and stripped of vital gear. Sometime in November, most probably during the Veteran’s Day weekend, it will be towed back to the museum, where it will become not only the Air Mobility Command Museum’s largest exhibit, but the only C-5 on display at any museum in the world.
Museum volunteer Dick Spawn said the time had come for the AMC Museum to add a C-5 to its collection.
Page 3 of 3 - “This completes the history of Dover Air Force Base,” he said. “It’s a sin we didn’t have one before.”
Fellow volunteer Bruce Moran agreed.
“People would come to the museum, and they’d ask, ‘Where’s the C-5?’” Moran said. “All we could do was point out over the fence at the all planes lined up on the flightline.”
“We always were told we’d get one, sometime in the future,” Spawn said.
“Now,” he added with a pleased grin, “the future is here.”
For retired Air Force crew chief Rod Moore, who flew many times aboard Zero-One-Four, the day was an amazing one.
“It was just incredible,” he said. “I haven’t seen that aircraft in 30 years.”
With so much history behind this particular plane, it’s appropriate that it find its way to a museum instead of suffering the fate of so many others: being sent to an Arizona storage area and eventually be sold as scrap.
“It’s just knowing that this C-5 won’t end up in the Boneyard,” he said. “I’m glad Zero-One-Four will be here, on permanent display.
“That just makes my day.”