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DSC00138 – Lockheed EC-121T Warning Star (L-1049A-55-86), 53-0548, Pima Air and Space Museum, Arizona, USA, October 1992.

DSC00138 - Lockheed EC-121T Warning Star (L-1049A-55-86), 53-0548, Pima Air and Space Museum, Arizona, USA, October 1992.

Based on the Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation, the Warning Star was designed as an Airborne Early Warning system to supplement the Distant Early Warning or ‘DEW’ line ground based radars. The United States Air Force operated the type from 1954 until October 1978 and this particular airframe was the last USAF example to be retired from service. The United States Navy also operated the type but the Navy variants were designated WV-1 (PO-1W), WV-2 and WV-3.

At the height of their USAF service the EC-121 equipped three wings, the 551st Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing based at Otis Air Force Base, Massachusetts, their Pacific counterpart the 552nd AEWCW based at McClellan Air Force Base, California, and during the Vietnam War the 553rd Reconnaissance Wing based at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base in northeast Thailand.

This EC-121 is C/N 4363 and was intended for US Navy service as a WV-2, but the contract was diverted to the USAF, and she was delivered to them on the 19th August 1955 as an RC-121D (re-designated in 1962 as an EC-121D) assigned to the 552nd AEWCW. In May 1970 she was upgraded to the final USAF variant, the EC-121T. Twenty-two EC-121Ts were converted from fifteen EC-121Ds and seven EC-121Hs. While not all EC-121Ts had their dorsal radomes removed during the upgrade, 53-0548 emerged without hers. After retiring from USAF service she was stored at the Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona from the 16th October 1978 allocated the inventory number CK218.

Thankfully she escaped the smelter and was preserved just over the road at the Pima Air and Space Museum. She was displayed at Pima from 1981 until December 1994 when she was deemed to be surplus to the museum’s requirements, probably because they already had another Warning Star on display (EC-121T 53-0554) so she was sold to Wayne Jones who formed the not-for-profit Global Aeronautical Foundation (GAF) with the intention of restoring the aircraft to airworthy condition and displaying her on the air show circuit.

In January 1995 she was towed to the restoration area of the museum where fourteen volunteers prepared her for her return to flight. She was in remarkably good condition thanks to being overhauled just before her retirement in 1978, and her preservation in the dry desert atmosphere of Arizona. Amazingly, none of her electronic equipment had been removed and much of it remained serviceable, including the APS-95 radar!

On the 14th April 1995 she made her first flight for seventeen years from Davis Monthan AFB, with retired Lockheed test pilot Frank Butorac in command, Wayne Jones as co-pilot and Jimmy Jones as flight engineer. The test flight lasted one hour and she landed at Tuscon Airport. After a further one hour test flight later that day, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pronounced her fit for a ferry flight to the GAF’s home base at Camarillo, California.

Unfortunately between 1995 and 1998 N548GF only flew sporadically, although she did make air show appearances at Point Mugu, Fort Worth and San Diego. Relations between the GAF and the FAA became strained, while the FAA were comfortable with Frank Butorac flying the aircraft, when he sadly passed away in 1998 they informed Wayne Jones that a "professional" flight program would have to be established to enable the operation to continue. Because the aircraft was a military EC-121, civilian Super Constellation type ratings were not valid, therefore, pilots had to be qualified by what is known as an FAA issued Letter of Authorization (LOA) for Special Areas of Operation (SAO). LOA’s are often used in the warbird community to certify pilots to fly former military aircraft operated under airworthiness certificates in the ‘experimental’ category. John Deakin, a local pilot who was current in the Commemorative Air Force’s Camarillo based Curtiss C-46 Commando was issued an LOA after a checkride in August 1999 with Wayne Jones as co-pilot and Terry McMaster as flight engineer. The plan was for John to train additional pilots but, before it all came to fruition, the FAA grounded the aircraft in June 2000 due to outer wing corrosion. In 2002 Wayne attempted to sell the aircraft, with it being offered for sale in February 2002 on the Barnstormers.com website for $595,000 and in June 2002 in Trade-A-Plane for $695,000. Repairs were made but the aircraft was still grounded when Wayne passed away on the 21st June 2002 at the age of 71.

Other than making an occasional appearance at the Camarillo air show, she was inactive until Wayne Jones’s widow Lois donated her to the Yanks Air Museum in 2005. On the 15th March 2006 a team of engineers arrived at Camarillo and immediately set to work preparing her for another return to flight. Unfortunately, the FAA insisted that further work be undertaken before permission could be granted for a ferry flight. Work continued on the aircraft for the next few years, indeed, it was not until 14th January 2012 when she got airborne from Camarillo for the last time, making what will probably be her final flight to the Yanks Air Museum at Chino, California where she currently resides.

The date this image was taken was most likely sometime in October 1992 and it was taken using a Nikon FG-20 loaded with Kodachrome-64.

Posted by Martin Andrew Laycock on 2014-02-18 12:01:12

Tagged: , Airborne Early Warning , N548GF , 53-0548 , Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star , Lockheed Super Constellation , Pima , Pima Air and Space Museum , Yanks Air Museum

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