Monday, November 9, 2020

Reassigned





I pulled into the parking lot of Jittery Joe’s coffee shop in Watkinsville, Georgia, and looked around the almost empty parking lot. I was meeting Bob Bolton at the iconic coffee shop to review and select photographs for our upcoming book, U.S. Air Force Tactical Missiles – 1949-1969 – The Pioneers. Bob had driven over from Lawrenceville and was waiting for me in the coffee shop. My wife and I drove up from Port Charlotte, Florida, and were staying with our daughter just outside Athens, Georgia.

While sorting through a double-table spread with photographs of Matador and Mace missiles for possible inclusion in our book, we came across a photograph taken of a TM-61C Matador at Wheelus Air Base in Libya. The photograph, taken in 1955, showed a Matador being prepared for launch in the Libyan desert during Operation Suntan, part of the Annual Missile Launch Operation in North Africa. The AMLO, as it was known, was an annual launch exercise attended by all the active US Air Force tactical missile launch squadrons in Germany. This particular missile was from the 1st Pilotless Bomber Squadron at Bitburg Air Base, Germany. One of the comments written on the photo identified the officer seen on the far left side of the photograph as 1st Lt. John Gibbs. Bob and I decided to use the photograph in the book. 

A year or so later, after the book was published, I got an unidentified telephone call. I rarely accept unknown cellphone calls, but for some reason, I took this one. It was John Gibbs. His name rang a bell but I couldn’t remember why.

Wheelus Air Base Libya, AMLO 1955. TM-61C Matador -  Lt John Gibbs is on the far left














Hey, George, I’m a former missileman and found out about this group called TAC Missileers Association. I found your telephone number and decided to find out what this is all about.”

What this is all about,” I answered without realizing who I was talking to, “Is documenting our place in Air Force history, and the guy you need to talk to is our membership director, Max Butler. We’d love to have you join us.”

It didn’t take long for John to join the TAC Missileers Association and almost immediately catch Max’s ear about an Air Force tactical missile he found in central Florida that was looking for a new home. John drove by the American Legion post in Wildwood, Florida, not far from an area known as The Villages, and saw a weather-worn, CGM-13B Mace missile on display in front of the American Legion Post 18. He stopped to see if the Legion post would be interested in a historical presentation about their Mace missile.


CGM-13B (TM-76B) Mace missile on display at the American Legion, Wildwood, Florida  1997











To the contrary, the American Legion post membership had already voted to remove the Mace. Several post members had issues with paying the liability insurance required by the National Museum of US Air Force, owners and trustees of all Air Force vehicles on loan for display. The CGM-13B - originally known as a TM-76B, known simply to those who were assigned to her as the “B” bird - was moved from its duty station at the Tactical Missile School at Orlando Air Force Base, some fifty miles south, to the Wildwood American Legion post when the 4504th Missile Training Wing at Orlando AFB inactivated in 1966. The Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, already has a pristine CGM-13B that served combat duty in Okinawa in its static display and did not have a new home for the old Wildwood Mace. They hadn’t yet decided where to relocate the missile. 




A1C Bob Bolton, 887th Tactical Missile Squadron, 

with a MGM-13A (TM-76A) Mace with at Gr├╝nstadt, Germany - Summer of 1965




Bob Bolton - TAC Missileers Association



CGM-13B (TM-76B) serial number 59-4871, manufactured by The Glenn L. Martin Co., Baltimore, MD, was accepted by the U.S. Air Force in December, 1960, and sent to the Tactical Missile Combat School at Orlando Air Force Base. The Tactical Missile School was operated by the 4504th Missile Training Wing, Ninth Air Force, Tactical Air Command. The school was inactivated in 1966, concurrent with the phase-out of the “A” version of the Mace, the ground-hugging ATRAN – Automatic Terrain Recognition and Navigation – model that comprised most of the 38th Tactical Missile Wing in Germany.

 All “B” Bird missile training classes were then reassigned to the 3415th Training Wing at Lowry AFB, Colorado, until the inertially-guided Mace “B” was removed from the operational inventory in 1969. The “B” Bird, renumbered several times until finally designated the CGM-13B, remained on duty in Germany, reassigned to the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing at Bitburg and with the 498th Tactical Missile Group at Kadena, Okinawa. The forlorn school Mace from the inactive 4504th MTW had been on stand-by in the middle of Florida ever since the school closed. It was simply awaiting further orders. With Max Butler in the loop, a request for a Permanent Change of Station began processing.


Site 8, Idenheim, April 2005
CGM-13B Mace On Duty with the 71st Tactical Missile  Squadron, Bitburg, Germany - 1960's
USAFE Photo from Wayne Douglas


Frank Roales, a volunteer for a new military museum project in Vincennes, Indiana, and a contributor to our book - his specialty was the Air Force MM-1 Terracruzer transporter – previously contacted Max Butler looking for any available Mace or Matador missiles the TAC Missileers Association may have known about. It didn’t take long for Max, Frank, and John to mix and match the need of both the American legion post and the fledgling Vincennes museum. The mayor of Vincennes, Indiana, officially requested approval from the Air Force Museum to display the missile at the new Indiana Military Museum project. The Museum agreed and the project was in motion. All that was needed was the method and money. Again, Max Butler and the TAC Missileers were at the forefront.

Bob Bolton, editor of the TAC Missileers newsletter, published a request about the upcoming project and caught the attention of Jerry Brenner, a former nuclear weapons mechanic on the Mace. Jerry contacted the Commander of the Indiana Air National Guard’s 181st Intelligence Wing, in Terre Haute, Indiana, asking for assistance with the move. Jerry sent photographs and documentation from past missile moves, including a photograph of the Mace missile in Wildwood. It wasn’t long before Jerry received a telephone call from 1st Lt. Randi Brown, Wing Executive Staff Officer, 181st Intelligence Wing, asking how they could help. Jerry gave her Max’s telephone number and the project began to take shape. Lieutenant Brown coordinated the Air Force/ANG side of the 840 mile project with Max Butler and provided the truck transportation and two drivers. All Max Butler had to do was figure out how to make it work. And when. We needed some serious planning.

Bob called me in February, 2010, asking if I could meet him in Wildwood, almost in the dead-center of Florida. The association was having an on-site planning and measurement session – Max called it a scope meeting – for the up-coming move. “Great,” I thought. Probably my last chance to see a missile I worked on for eight years. “I’ll see you there!”

The last operational CGM-13B Mace Missiles were taken out of combat service in October, 1969, from Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. The 71st Tactical Missile Squadron, my unit, had inactivated in Germany on April 30th, some six months earlier. The Mace continued in service for several years as target drones fired from Eglin AFB as target practice for the Air Defense Command at Tyndall AFB. One gained international notoriety when it continued to fly down-range, crossing over Cuba despite being raked by cannon fire and being hit by at least one air to air missile in the Gulf of Mexico gunnery range. It crashed somewhere on the other side of Cuba after running out of fuel.

Most of the combat unit personnel had moved on by then. Many of our peers migrated to Strategic Air Command Titan or Minuteman launch or maintenance crews by that time, but, after eight years of tactical missiles, I separated from the Air Force for civilian life.

March 15th, 2010 – Scope Day

I headed out of Port Charlotte early enough to drive the two and a half hours and still be there well before everyone else was due to show up. I should have known better, I was the last one to arrive and I was an hour early! Bob had driven down from Atlanta and other members of the association had come from as far away as Jacksonville. Max was staying an hour or so away and acted as if it were in his backyard. A tall gentleman watched from the edge of activity, and when all of us who knew each other were finished with our cordialities, walked over and introduced himself. It was John Gibbs. He was the First Lieutenant in our Wheelus photograph and the catalyst in moving the Mace missile to its new home. John was a former member of the First Pilotless Bomber Squadron at Bitburg Air Base, Germany, the very first operational missile squadron in the United States Air Force. John was a pleasure to meet and his knowledge of early missile operations in Europe was fascinating.

How big is a Mace missile? How much does it weigh? Nobody knew, or more correctly, no one remembered. It had been fifty years since the last time I worked on one and I wasn’t alone. We measured, photographed, videoed, measured again, and measured serial number 59-4871 yet a third time. The J-33 jet engine had been removed as had almost every other piece of ancillary hardware. Everything except for the network of impact fuses still mounted to the inside of the nose cone. The small, innocuous, static, piezoelectric generators that, crushed all at the same time, created enough current to detonate the High Explosive trigger that was absolutely the last way to detonate the Mark 28, 1.2 Megaton thermonuclear warhead, were still in place. The small, plastic-appearing gizmos were no hazard of any kind. The minuscule voltage each one created during its one time, destructive activation, was like having a rack of double “A” batteries that only worked once mounted in the front of the missile. This training missile had never mounted a live warhead.

Then it was time to count the money. The TAC Missileers Association would pay the estimated $2500 for crane service and insurance and the 181st Intelligence Wing, Indiana ANG, supplied the transportation. The rest was volunteer effort. Max penciled in April 14th, just a month away, as M-day and we were committed to the move.

We started collecting and disseminating information on a daily basis. Request for copies of old Air Force Technical Orders brought a wealth of information and soon Max and Roger St. Germain began the tedious, time consuming task of designing and building precision wooden cradles, exactly fifty-four inches in diameter, to be mounted to a yet unseen Air Force flat-bed trailer, that would secure the missile during its eight hundred, forty mile trip to its new home. It was decided the removed wings would be mounted either under or alongside the fuselage. The horizontal stabilizer would be removed from the vertical stabilizer due to its width and the two would be strapped together with the wings. It sounded good in theory, at least.






April 14th 2010 – Move Day

Most of the license plates parked under the old Spanish Moss-draped Live Oak trees at American Legion Post 18 that beautiful, sunny morning were from counties all over the state of Florida, but plates from Georgia and North Carolina were there as well. Luckily, we had a pretty good spread of Air Force Specialty Codes, or skill sets represented but we did have one problem: we had no Engine or Airframe mechanics among us. None of us had ever taken a Mace apart before. The youngest one of us Missileers gathered for the project was sixty-eight years old. We figured we could still do the job, it just might take a little longer than planned.

Undeterred, we stuck bookmarks in our dog-eared Technical Orders and started on our work plan. While we had many launch crew members, several guidance technicians and test equipment specialists, many trained only on the older Matador, only Max and myself were Flight Controls and were familiar with the wing layout. Max was a TM-61C Matador troop, he had never seen a Mace before. I told him, “No problem, Max, the wings come off the same way.” That proved to be an almost correct statement. Step one however, was to mount the custom wooden cradles to the US Air Force flat bed trailer, driven down from Terre Haute, Indiana, by T/Sgt Stacey Snow and T/Sgt William Curtis. Stacey and William listened carefully to Max describe our plans, then they both smiled and said, “Sounds good, let’s do it!”

While Max and his group finagled the shipping cradles into position on the flat-bed trailer, another team laid out sand bags on the lawn where they wanted the crane operator to place the missile once it was cut free from its secure pedestal. The pedestal turned out to be a facade, simply bricks arranged around a steel frame with two vertical steel rods mounted to the frame that thrust upwards through the missile’s belly. The missile was also tethered to the pedestal with a cable attached to the nose and a second cable securely attached to the tail.

George Mindling - TAC Missileers Association














The crane moved carefully into position alongside the missile to start the removal process. Robert Pyne and Billy Graham from Graham’s Trucking mounted huge lifting straps fore and aft on the silver, forty-four foot long fuselage. Billy signaled to the crane operator and the missile gently lifted just enough to take weight off the stand. Cutting the cables and steel bars was our first step in freeing the missile. After the second cable was severed, Billy again signaled the crane operator. Everyone held their breath as the crane engine revved up and 59-4871 gently lifted free of its home for the last forty-four years.


Max Butler - TAC Missleers Association














With guy ropes tied to the nose and tail – and a myriad of attentive supervisors scattered safely outside the work zone – the Mace was slowly swung over the sandbags and gently lowered to the ground. Stepladders appeared from somewhere and we were soon walking along the top of the missile as if it were fifty years ago. Waves of nostalgia overtook all of us during that first few minutes, bringing back memories of scampering up and down the alert-ready missiles in their angled launch bays. In our late sixties and seventies, we were no longer a scampering crowd.

There were five or six of us standing on the wings and fuselage as Max started removing the large, Phillips-head screws that mounted the crown panel over the wing mounts. The first three panel mounting screws, untouched in four decades, protested but slowly broke loose and were removed. The fourth screw proved to be a foreboding of things to come: it was frozen solidly in place. It wasn’t one of the original Phillips head screws, but some odd screw someone used simply because they thought it fit. After bathing the stubborn screw in every known kind of penetrating lubricant and many varied attempts at removing the balky screw, it was finally cut out with a small sledge hammer and a cold chisel. Max knocked it loose almost an hour after we started. He sat back on the wing and looked around, sweat dripping from his forehead. “I’m getting too old for this high tech stuff,” he said.

Robert Pyne, Graham Trucking on the wrench with Russ Reston, George Mindling, and Max Butler












During the Scope meeting a month earlier, Bob mentioned to me there was a slight difference between the left and right wing. One wing had the track in the root section used to mount primercord, a linear, rope-type explosive used by the “B” bird to separate the wings at dump to facilitate a supersonic terminal dive. I asked Bob if the “A” Bird, the model of Mace he had launch-crewed on in Germany, had tracks in the wing roots. “Nope,” he answered, we didn’t need to do a terminal dive, we were low altitude attack. So our missile, 59-4871, had one “A” bird wing and one “B” bird wing. Bob laughed and said, “Well, it is what it is. Besides, there’s one more thing, the trailing tip of the “B” bird wing is bent.”

Again, nostalgia swept over me. I was there with Bob Harkins and Leonard Estrada in our B-Bird flight controls class when a fork lift sped out of our checkout hanger with his lift raised. The driver looked over his shoulder, but not up. He had raised the lift high enough to solidly catch the low-hanging wing-tip of the incredibly strong, honey-comb cathedral wing. The missile shuddered with the impact that slam-lifted the back of the forklift off the ground. but the damage to the missile was minimal. Only a few inches of the trailing edge of the wing were deformed. If it had been an operational bird, the wing would have been depot repaired, but apparently there was no urgent need to repair the training missile. That accident was sometime during the summer of 1961, and here I sat, in 2010, looking at the distinct, bent up wing, mesmerized as if I were in high school. I felt a sudden fondness for this old, weather-worn bird.

Bruce Hynds and Roger St. Germain - TAC Missileers Association













We eventually dismounted the wings with close coordination with everyone involved, safety being our utmost concern, but it wasn’t easy. The huge, shoulder mounting bolts were as corroded as the ones on the access panel. We had help from Graham Trucking which loaned us not only the use of their professional truck and crane tools, but their muscle as well. We never would have made it without their assistance and the five or six cans of penetrating lubricants they expended removing the bolts. Removing the missile shoulder bolts proved to be a hard, tedious time consuming task.

Mounting the removed wings on the trailer proved to be another challenge. Max had mounted the fuselage cradles so the separated wings would easily slide onto the back of the trailer. With a wing span of only twenty-two feet, it was naively assumed the length of an individual wing wouldn’t exceed eleven feet. Wingspan does not translate to wing length, as we did not consider the swept length of the wings, only the distance from tip to tip when mounted. We were off by over a foot and a half on each wing. After quick, emergency consultations with Stacey and William, who by now were known to everyone by their nicknames, Gunny and Snowman, the two front cradles on the truck bed were relocated far enough apart to slip the wings in between them. A few sand bags under the wings for shock absorption and we were in business.

Russ Reston - TAC Missileers Association














The last task, removing the vertical stabilizer was almost a show stopper. Lindsey Cosby of Graham Trucking arrived with more tools including the biggest ratchet wrench I have ever seen. The wrench, mated with a six-foot long, iron handle extension and manhandled by Pyne and Graham, two of the strongest men there, slowly, painstakingly, brought forth a metallic squeak as the first bolt finally broke loose. Removing the remaining bolts was as time consuming and nerve wracking as the first one. By the time the crane was ready to attach to the stabilizer almost an hour later, tension among all the onlookers was at its highest for the day. The crane gently lifted the stabilizer, but it didn’t budge. It was still firmly attached to the missile. It took several, intense moments of frantic work to pry it loose from the fuselage, but when it finally lifted free, you could feel the wave of jubilation sweep over the onlookers. That was the last major mechanical task before loading the fuselage on the waiting flat bed trailer. After setting the stabilizer on the ground, the crane swung back to pick up the missile. Everyone silently watched as the missile slowly, almost gracefully lifted off the sand bags. This time she was being finally loaded for its trip to its new home.














Both Max and Roger are union certified master carpenters, and no one expected problems lowering the missile into the cradles, but the missile didn’t fit. No one said a word as Max and Roger glanced at each other. The perfectly round fuselage simply would not slide into the first cradle. The crane operator lifted the bird up several inches and waited for instructions. Max leaned over and inspected a thin strip of felt that had been added to the rim of the cradles to prevent possible scarring. Max carefully pulled out the strip of felt and the crane lowered the missile perfectly and firmly into all three, perfectly radiused, hand-made 54.00 inch wide cradles.

Max directed the strapping of the missile, then waited as I struggled with another group to separate the vertical and horizontal stabilizers. The two had to be separated to avoid the extra-width the stabilizer gave the trailer load. To get permission from four states to haul an over-wide load was out of the question, so the two units had to be separated. Again, after careful analysis, Max found if we turned the stabilizer assembly a certain way, it would fit laterally on the trailer in front of the missile and we wouldn’t have to separate the two stabilizers.















The whole assembly strapped in securely and we all stood back for one last look at the Mace, almost defiantly displaying US Air Force boldly emblazoned on its side even though its wings had obviously been clipped. The moment for most of us was a somber one. Our tool bags would be put away with our memories.

After photographs were taken and we double checked everything on our lists, we all watched in the late afternoon sun as the flatbed pulled carefully onto Highway 44, headed for nearby I-75 with our weather-worn icon strapped securely to it. I’m sure there were more than a few startled motorists on the Interstate as 59-4871 headed north through the Smoky Mountains toward its new home. I have no doubts the question, “What is that? A rocket?” was uttered more than once.



Somewhere in the process, the old bird picked up a new name. When she arrived at Vincennes she would be known as “Miss L.” But before “Miss L” could once again go proudly on display, she needed a makeover. One that was forty-four years overdue.


T/Sgt Stacey Snow and T/Sgt William Curtis.
181st Intelligence Wing, Indiana Air National Guard


Post Script

TAC Missileer Association member Jerry Brenner, volunteer at the Indiana Military Museum, met Gunny and Snowman as they crossed the Ohio River into Indiana on Interstate 69. Brenner, who followed the missile for several miles, was amazed at the surprised reactions of motorists who drove past the old missile being transported to her new home. He was at the motel the following morning after the final overnight stop as a family came out of the motel restaurant. They were startled to see the missile they had passed on the way to the hotel parked at the side of the lot. They asked if they could get close to it and Jerry told them, “Sure, take all the photos you want.”

The last leg to Vincennes was uneventful and the Mace was met at the museum by workers and volunteers who gave a round of applause as the newly named “Miss L” slowly pulled in. After being lifted off the trailer, the Mace sat outside covered with tarps to protect the openings while everything else was stored under a shed for most of the year while planning and funding took place. Photographs were taken and sent to the Air Force Museum to show that the missile was secured and covered from the weather. The next year and a half were an exercise in patience and hard work.

The Indiana Military Museum was granted $2,280 for the acquisition of decals and detail work from the Association of Air Force Missileers, an organization for all former United States Air Force Missileers, or anyone with an interest in past or current USAF missile and space systems, and another $1000 donation from the TAC Missileers Association. The hard work was done mainly by the volunteers, headed by Frank Roales who helped start the original project.

The next year saw the damaged air intake plenum chamber and the bent wing tip repaired, as well as the missing parts from the stabilizer being fabricated. The entire missile was prepared for new paint which included the removal of the old decals.

According to Jerry Brenner, ”The decals that were on the missile were removed by using a one inch wood chisel and the main part of the missile was done with palm and hand sanders. Many hours were put in during the summer when the humidity was higher than the temperature and we are talking about 100+ degrees. The tail assembly was sand blasted as it was made of cast aluminum.”



Frank Roales designed the support that holds the missile at its launch angle of 17 degrees and the custom-built structure was fabricated by J and J welding of Mt. Vernon, Indiana. The support posts were donated by local supporters of the museum, including an unnamed oil company. The Air Force Armament Museum in Destin, Florida, supplied the information about decals which were made by a company in Vincennes. Some of the larger decals on the wings were made by hand and painted on. The missile was slowly, painstakingly reassembled. Finally, in May, 2012, the wings and the stabilizer were attached. Frank made covers for the plenum chamber intake and made a plate to cover the tail pipe opening.



A crane from a local company was brought in to raise the assembled missile on to the pedestal. There was excitement as the reassembled missile was slowly lifted up for all to see. Motorists stopped and stood beside the road outside the museum to see the Mace as it was lowered to it’s new, permanent cradle. Once the missile was lowered, brackets were attached to the missile to secure it in place and a large bolt was attached to hold down the tail of the missile.












The Mace was spray painted from nose cone to tailpipe, and in June, 2012, Frank, Max and Jerry got together to apply the final decals.




In October, 2012, a dedication ceremony was held at the Indiana Military Museum to officially make the Mace-B a part of the museum.













The CGM-13B greets visitors to the museum, standing in front of the museum, not in “Hot-Hold” as its colleagues in Germany and Okinawa did for almost ten years, but as a tribute to the Missileers who lovingly moved it and restored it, and to the Air Force Museum, the Indiana Military Museum, the 181st Intelligence Wing of the Indiana Air National Guard and to the Association of Air Force Missileers and the TAC Missileers Association, who all together, made its reassignment possible.


Max Butler, Frank Roales, and Jerry Brenner - TAC Missileers Association















Original member of the 1st PBS, John Gibbs, visits the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Museum at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, 2014. An original XB-61 Matador is in the background.

Post Script: 

"Here is the origin of “Miss L” It actually came about after the bird reached The Indiana Military Museum. Jerry Brenner and I had been working on cleaning,striping and repairing the bird for a few months when he had to go to the hospital for a heart problem and of course he couldn’t return right away after his release, After a number of weeks of this I sent him an e-mail asking him how he was doing and in jest told him to hurry back for the “Miss L” was missing him…..the name stuck." 

Frank Roales












All photos made possible from the TAC Missileers Association

Indiana Military Museum - https://indymilitary.com/

TAC Missileers Association - https://www.tacmissileers.org/

Association of Air Force Missileers - https://www.afmissileers.org


Mace 'A' at Hahn
MGM-13A Mace on alert duty, 405th Tactical Missile Squadron, Kirschburg, Germany, 1965





Sunday, November 8, 2020

Our World: Smaller and Smaller

 

Vladimir was far more fastidious than I anticipated. I didn’t want to ride with him and Steve to Lakeland, some two hours away, but Vlad not only had on his face-mask, but also had anti-bacterial hand cleaner and hand wipes on the console of his immaculate, new Toyota pickup truck. The fresh, crisp protective paper mat on the floor of the backseat had never been trampled by anyone’s shoes.

Three of us in one vehicle meant breaking my own COVID-19 guidelines, but I was in this all the way and I wanted to see the project wrap up. We were going to move a MiG-21 fighter jet - left over from the Polish Air Force – from southwest Florida to the Indiana Military Museum in Vincennes, Indiana. 

Steve's first encounter with a MiG-21


Steve and I made the trip a week earlier leading to our current venture. Technically, we were assisting Max Butler, a volunteer for the museum, lift a sixty year old Soviet-era fighter out of a storage yard and strap it to a trailer. Max arranged for a crane and a flat-bed trailer to do the real work, we were going to assist as much as possible although I’m sure the professional movers needed no supervision. Vladimir was coming along because Steve picked up a discarded ejection seat handle we found on the ground on our first trip to the project. Steve strapped the handle to a lawn chair for his Ukrainian neighbor after we got home as a joke. The handle instructions were of course written in Russian, and brought tears to Vlad’s eyes. Small world, Vlad had been a mechanic on this very type of airplane fifty years ago, when as a young man, he had been in the Soviet Air Force. When he found out we were headed back a second time, Vlad had to go with us.

A refurbished MiG-21 on display at Draken International Headquarters  

Max had called me weeks earlier and asked if I could meet him at Draken International, an aviation firm that supplies contract military services from rebuilding and re-certifying ex-military aircraft to actually flying training missions for the US military. Draken was donating one of their old MiG-21 fighters located at the Lakeland airport to the Indiana Military Museum. All the museum had to do was come get the airplane. Max had as long a trip to Lakeland as I did, but from the other direction as he drove down from Eustis.

This wasn’t our first move for the military museum. We worked together ten years ago to move a CGM-13B Mace missile that required us to actually disassemble the missile.

 https://piddlepaddler.blogspot.com/2020/11/reassigned.html 

Our tool bags weren’t required this time as the MiG already had the wings and tail section mounted on shipping frames. That was fine with me, being in my late seventies, I no longer turn wrenches if I don’t have to. Max, even though older than me, was as thorough as always and made wooden back-up frames and brackets for the trailer in case they were needed. I was really there for moral support. Almost like old times, except this time we were in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.












was apprehensive about the trip at first, but with the proper precautions, it would be a break from the cabin-fever of the last six months of seclusion. My wife had reservations also, but she was as happy to have a day to herself as well. It is a small world indeed, as a friend we had known in Germany – also in the late sixties – asked if I could take her husband along when she heard about my trip. Her husband, Steve, would have much preferred a fishing trip, but this was an opportunity for him to spend time doing something completely new. He enthusiastically joined me for the pre-dawn trip through central Florida.

The author, face mask in hand, and with the MiG 21 headed to the Indiana Military Museum











The first day’s project turned out to be an eight-hour bust. While I was like a kid in a candy shop taking photographs of old fighter planes, it turned out – after lifting the airplane and tailpipe onto the trailer, - the trailer was too small and everything had to be unloaded. We needed a different trailer. Steve, at first in awe of the collection of twenty one MiG-21 fighters stacked uniformly in the fenced parking lot, was soon picking up fragments of broken panels and levers written in Russian as souvenirs for his Ukrainian neighbor. His eyes lit up when he found the ejection seat handle.

Max was left with rescheduling the crane and ensuring the trucking company would bring an appropriate trailer as Steve and I headed south in the mid-afternoon heat of Florida in early September. I doubted I would return as there wasn’t anything to do but observe as the professionals did all the real work, but that was before Steve taped the handle to Vlad’s lawn chair.

Max Butler asking "Where are my movers?"











When Max called with the new pick-up schedule, I asked if I could bring along a third party, a former MiG mechanic. Max was thrilled we would have someone who could translate the stencils and panels.

Yes!” he said. “Bring him along!”

Steve listens as Vlad describes an electronic component











Vlad’s translation duties involved in depth conversations with not only Max, but also with Diego, the young engineer with Draken who knew the aircraft as well as Vlad! The painted stencils on the fuselage were written in Polish, but the manufacturing tags and interior markings were written in Russian. Vlad never removed his mask as he answered questions and climbed around his old airplane in the warm morning sun.

We weren’t the only people picking up MiGs that morning. The US military purchased the majority of the remaining airplanes to be used as target practice and there were two trucks in front of us as we waited for our movers to arrive. While Vlad soon lost himself in the maze of airplanes, we all began chatting among ourselves about the coincidence of having a actual Russian Air Force MiG mechanic with us. One of the other drivers said, “Hey, wait a minute…” and walked briskly away.

He returned shortly with an older, muscular looking man, also about our age. “Where’s the Russian?” he asked.



We called Vladimir over and the two greeted each other cautiously, first in English, then in Russian. The other truck driver, who had just pulled in from Jacksonville, three hundred miles away, was also Russian.

They were guarded at first, but both got louder and more excited. They were soon laughing and actually glowing. Vlad and the truck driver were from the same neighborhood in the Ukraine. They had common schools and teachers and both knew storekeepers. They had grown up about three miles apart! Vlad and his new friend talked on the far side of the lot for over an hour, the driver missing his time slot to pick up the wings for his airplane. We used it to load ours. When they finally returned, the driver laughed and said, “Vladimir, I can longer talk to you! You cost me too much money!”












Vladimir talked the entire trip home. The truck driver was the first person from his area he met here since he slipped out of Russia just before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. The truck driver it turned out, left in 1990 as the confusion of the times allowed him and his family to get out as well. He had not met anyone else from home either.

As I sat in the back seat watching Florida’s flat, green landscape roll past, I couldn’t help but wonder what Max will find to move next.













*******

PostScript- Assembled and cleaned, but not yet ready for display, the Indiana Military Museum prepares the Mig-21 for Public Display.  Stay Tuned