The resurrection

The Lone Star Flight Museum rides again

December 8, 2009

Thursday morning, September 11, 2008, was bedlam. Hurricane Ike had drawn a bull’s-eye around Galveston Island and the Lone Star Flight Museum. Choices had to be made, heart-wrenching choices. After a lifetime of work and dedication by hundreds—nay, thousands—of people, museum President Larry Gregory had to decide what to save, what to leave behind.

With a hurricane bearing down upon Galveston, Texas, that second week of September, the staff and volunteers of the Lone Star Flight Museum were working frantically to ensure the big planes were ready to fly, and to find places for them to ride out the storm. The plan was to fly them to Midland, Texas, on Thursday morning, two days before the storm was expected to hit—but Midland was socked in. New arrangements had to be made for storing the aircraft and transporting the crews home once the museum’s airplanes were safely evacuated.

The patients in Galveston’s hospitals and nursing homes were also being evacuated that Thursday, and Scholes International was crammed with airplanes, helicopters, ambulances, and buses. Gregory discovered that the museum’s airplanes were only going to get fueled if he drove the truck, so he did, filling warbirds and civilian planes with avgas while the airport’s FBO employees pumped jet fuel.

Somehow, one by one, the museum’s B–17, B–25, Stearman, Hellcat, Bearcat, Corsair, P–47, A–1 Skyraider, and SBD Dauntless all flew away to safety. Fortunately, the AT–6 was already at a mainland paint shop. The DC–3 was the last to leave, on Friday morning, saved by three volunteers who flew into Galveston in a Cessna. The water was already rising, so they taxied the Gooney Bird through hub-deep water to get to the dry crown of the runway. Fifteen minutes later water covered the runway. It rose another six feet in the next six hours.

Since they had done all that they could, the museum’s workers and volunteers left Galveston Island for the safety of the mainland.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, September 13, Ike slammed ashore. While winds of 110 mph ripped off roofs and siding, destroyed the electrical grid, and tore trees apart, the monster hurricane—almost 600 miles in diameter—raised the level of the sea 14.9 feet. The sea wall on the beach side of town, built after the hurricane of 1900, held as the sea rose almost to the top. Unfortunately, Galveston Bay, between the island and the mainland, also rose 14.9 feet and flooded the island. Seawater reached seven feet in depth inside the museum.

Two days later, Larry Gregory managed to get back on the island. When he saw the museum, a piece of him died.

The water was gone and the museum was coated with a foot-deep mixture of seaweed, grass, trash, and mud. The west and southwest walls of the building were shredded, the contents of the gift shop were spread all over the airport, the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame had been demolished, all the exhibits in the building had been damaged or destroyed by immersion in saltwater, and the museum’s collection of spare parts—necessary to keep the airplanes flying—had been reduced to junk. The airplanes remaining in the museum, those that couldn’t be flown away, had all been damaged; several of them were totaled.

The PBY Catalina in the main hall had floated; wave action smashed the right wing sponson into the wall of the building, repeatedly, until finally it jammed and held the aircraft imprisoned. The PV–2 Harpoon had been pushed back into the immobile Catalina, damaging both. The Tiger Moth was totaled. The Bamboo Bomber was a mess.

“For the first time in my life I felt helpless, with no idea where to begin,” Gregory said. It was then that he got a call from Marshall Cloyd, a member of the museum’s board. Gregory poured out his heart, describing the disaster. When he ran down there was a silence, then Cloyd said, “Well, figure it out. When you have a real problem, give me a call.” Then he hung up.

Gregory said he was stunned, but the realization slowly sank in that there were only two choices: Declare the museum a complete loss and close it, or clean it up and start over with what was left.

His task was complicated by the fact that the city of Galveston was uninhabitable. Many families had lost their homes and everything they owned. In the weeks that followed, essential utilities and services were restored street by street. Many of the volunteers the museum depended upon moved away or were busy trying to salvage their lives. Still, a few die-hards showed up to help.

Help also came from the U.S. Navy, which sent 70 sailors with their own equipment from the USS Nassau and Amphibious Construction Battalion 2. They cleaned out aircraft and hosed off exhibits and hauled away 500 cubic yards of muck. At the end of the second day, one of the young sailors approached Gregory and said, “Thanks for letting me be a part of this.” Then he handed the stunned museum president a T-shirt from the USS Nassau.

“One of these days,” Gregory said, “I’m getting the T-shirt framed and we’ll display it properly. There are no words to express our gratitude for the help that was so generously given. That young man gave me a huge morale boost when I needed it most.”

Volunteers from other warbird organizations arrived to help clean up. Collings Foundation and Commemorative Air Force members were out in force in the days after the storm, while Friedkin Aviation provided vital logistical support. The air traffic controllers from the airfield’s tower also pitched in to help.

A week after the storm, Gregory called a commercial contractor, Ken Austin, who showed up the next day. Two days later Austin had workmen on the job repairing the sides of the hangars and rebuilding the gift shop. A local merchant donated flooring materials and shelving.

Meanwhile, volunteers and the museum’s staff mechanics were busy cleaning the aircraft damaged by the storm, trying to wash away as much salt as possible, and repairing them. “I was so proud of our employees and volunteers,” Gregory said. “Without them, without their dedication and belief in the value of the museum to the public, we wouldn’t have made it. Nor would we have made it without the private benefactors who opened their checkbooks and gave us money to make payroll.”

Finally, on January 31, 2009, the Lone Star Flight Museum reopened, began giving rides again, and resumed sharing its magnificent aircraft collection with the public. In May the museum’s B–25 Mitchell, sporting nose art commemorating the Doolittle Raiders, participated in a flyover of the Indianapolis 500 on race day and gave rides to disabled veterans.

Larry Gregory explained: “We had flown this airplane for the Doolittle Raiders’ sixty-fifth reunion on April 18, 2007, and again in May 2008, at a celebration in honor of the Raiders at Eglin Air Force Base. We had two Raiders in the airplane when we arrived at Eglin, Ed Horton and Dick Cole, and were honored to give rides to other former Raiders and their families. We owe these men so much. When we were flying the disabled veterans at Indianapolis this year, nine months after Hurricane Ike nearly wiped us out, we were again using the airplane in the way the benefactors and donors to the museum intended: We were sharing it with America. Just for the record, we gave those vets one hell of a ride.”

Much work remains. All the damaged aircraft have been evaluated and are in the process of being secured to prevent further damage. Many of the aircraft, such as the PB4Y–2 Privateer, are unable to move until their magnesium wheels are replaced. Mechanics and volunteers continue to sift through the parts and tools to find anything that can be saved from the effects of saltwater immersion. Curatorial volunteers are in the process of rehabilitating artifacts and uniforms damaged in the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame. Salt attacked the magnesium parts and many of the display engines were reduced to junk by corrosion.

Yet despite the damage, the museum is very much alive, a going concern. The museum’s primary fund-raising activity is selling flight experiences to the general public in the B–17, B–25, T–6, and Stearman. The trainers are very popular, and the museum hopes to acquire another of each of these airplanes.

On the last Sunday in August 2009, just two weeks short of a year after Ike, I was one of the first visitors to the museum. Standing alone beside the museum’s DC–3, looking at the drip pans under the engines, staring up at the open cockpit window, running my eye along the rivets and inspecting the Continental Airlines livery, I was transported back to my very first airliner trip, in a DC–3, from Morgantown, West Virginia, to Washington National Airport in the fall of 1965.

The airplane I would steal if I had keys to the museum is not the DC–3, a gift from Continental Airlines; nor the Hellcat, Corsair, or Mustang; but the Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless. There she sits, ready to fly, with her twin thirties in the rear cockpit pointing aft. A fake 500-pound bomb sits on a nearby dolly. In my mind’s eye I can see myself in the cockpit, feel the moving flight deck, smell the salty wind. Beyond the horizon, out there in that wilderness of sea and sky, are Japanese aircraft carriers, and life or death. The Dauntless represents, for me, all those heroes who wagered their lives for us, the American people—and who died alone, in a cockpit or drowned at sea, hoping their lives made a difference.

I wandered on, lost in reverie. A man wearing a museum shirt was scrubbing on the top of the starboard engine nacelle on the B–25. A woman was working on the other nacelle. I stopped to chat. He was Lt. Danny Jan of the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Department. A private pilot, he has volunteered at the museum for two years. His wife, Betsy, got interested six months ago, and now this is where they spend their Sundays. They are the airplane captains of the B–25 Mitchell, and hope to eventually qualify as flight engineers.

Betsy Jan explained: “The Doolittle Raiders were so young, the age of my children. They all volunteered for the mission, to do something for America, knowing they might not come back. We seem to have lost some of that spirit. I find it again here, scrubbing this airplane, touching it, inspecting it, looking at every nut and bolt, and meeting the living Raiders.”

You can check out the museum on the Web. And when you are in Galveston, drive out to the airport to visit the airplanes and those who love them.

Stephen Coonts and his wife, novelist Deborah Coonts, own three airplanes: a Breezy, a J–3 Cub, and an American Champion High Country Explorer. His next novel, The Disciple , will be published in December. Deborah’s first novel, Wanna Get Lucky? , will be published in May 2010.