A Smithsonian First

  • Published
  • By Col. William Gain (retired)
The Smithsonian Institute has never painted and decaled an aircraft to a specific military unit until ...

On his first day as work as an operations officer at Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Va., Barry Smith stumbled upon a find that would become a central project in his life for the next few decades. Barry had been in aviation his entire career and was looking forward to managing a major airport such as Dulles. During his first day's inspections of the facilities and grounds, Barry spotted a C-121 Constellation in the farthest extremes of the airport. Being a "junk yard collector," his natural instinct was to go exploring, but being that this was first day he would have to wait until a later date.

As Barry continued doing his inspections, he began investigating the C-121. Barry had a special love for the Connie, as he began his military career with the 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg, W.Va., and his first assignment was on the Connie supporting missions to Vietnam. To Barry's surprise the Connie parked on the ramp was one that he had flown on when he was stationed at Martinsburg for several years. As he continued to watch the Connie, he saw it sit in the corner for the next two decades. After the new Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was completed in 2003, Barry was again hopeful that the Connie would move to the new facility and be restored. However, he continued to wait.

In 2000 Dulles began a major expansion project including the construction of two new parking garages, a fourth runway, a new concourse, a new Air Traffic Control Tower, pedestrian walkways and an airport train system. As the project matured, it became evident that the Connie's access route to the museum would be blocked and lost forever, so plans began in 2005 to move the aircraft.

Barry watched as National Air and Space Museum (NASM) employees attempted to move the aircraft. However, after sitting for 17 years, getting parts and supplies for the aged aircraft were nearly impossible. NASM employees engaged the help of United Airlines and, on Sept. 22, 2005, Barry watched the Connie taxi toward the museum. However, the transfer was not to be as the aircraft was unable to circumvent a fence, so the taxi was reversed, and she was put back in her previous position.

By April 2007 the Connie had to be moved once and for all, and Barry worked to move the fence so that the aircraft could be moved before it became land-locked. This tow was a special occasion for a contingency from the 167th Retiree's Association who flew on the Connie and were part of the onboard taxi crew that day. Shortly thereafter, United and NASM employees began stripping the old bird's paint, a task that proved to be quite difficult in the open air. During a visit to the museum, United Airlines' East Coast Manager Don Burbank assured full commitment to the project, and the search for a hangar was on. Barry soon found and negotiated a former Independence Air hangar for the stripping and painting process. The aircraft was towed out of the hangar and painted with USAF-WVANG colors on Nov. 28, 2007.

The Connie was now ready for her last tow to the Udvar- Hazy center. A tow team led by Barry and a group of 167th retirees began the 45-minute tow to the other side of the airfield to her final parking spot inside the center. The props in storage were hung, windows were replaced and the full set of decals donated by the 167th Airlift Wing was spotted on the aircraft to the minute detail.

The aircraft as it currently sits in the Smithsonian is the first painted and decaled to a designated unit in the museum's history. The pictures and documentation from the 167th Retiree's Association were crucial in making the Connie historically accurate, and it can be seen today with WVANG lettering and seals, the Presidential Unit Citation ribbon on the lower body, and the aircraft's crew chief's name and data below the pilot's window.

Barry flew as a navigator on C-121s while serving with the 167th, logging about 1,500 hours on Constellations and another 3,500 on the C-130 Hercules before he retired in 1993. In 2008 Barry retired from the airport having completed his second career and his quest to have the Connie restored and in the museum.

"There is nothing like a great career and great people," Barry said before his retirement. "I flew a great airplane, worked with great people, and watched as UAL and NASM employees gave the Connie a special place in many others' hearts."