Skunkie, the World War II B-25 Mitchell bomber raised from Lake Greenwood in the 1980s and stored in Columbia since 1992, is looking for a home.
The Richland County Airport Commission has turned back a request by the newly formed S.C. Historic Aviation Foundation to house the plane in the historic, but crumbling, Curtiss-Wright hangar at Owens Field — where it had been stored until a few months ago — citing insurance liability. The foundation, which purchased the plane from the Celebrate Freedom Foundation for $15,000 last month, says it may have to take the plane — which is now tethered outside of the hangar — out of Richland County if the commission doesn’t reconsider its position.
“I went into this meeting thinking that the airport commission would be thrilled to death with what we were doing for this historic aircraft,” said SCHAF president C. Cantzon Foster. “We just needed a little help.”
But the hangar, built in 1929, is arguably in a more precarious condition than the plane. It has holes in the roof and missing windows, and a decade of efforts to raise an estimated $3 million for its restoration have gone nowhere.
“The commission was concerned about the structural integrity of the hangar and traffic in it by non-county employees,” said Chris Eversmann, director of Columbia’s Hamilton-Owens Airport, where the hangar is located. “Work is needed to see if it is safe and sound.”
The hangar, built by the Curtiss-Wright Co. at the advent of the Great Depression and dedicated as Columbia Municipal Airport in 1930, has seen aviation grow from biplanes navigated by lighthouse-like beacons to global positioning satellites.
The Curtiss-Wright Co. was formed when businesses owned by the Wright Brothers, inventors of the airplane, and motorcycle enthusiast Glenn Curtiss merged. The company built hangars as maintenance facilities at airports nationwide. Only a handful still exist.
Wilbur Wright died in 1912, and it’s unknown whether Orville Wright ever visited the hangar. But famed aviator Amelia Earhart’s signature is still listed in the Columbia airport’s log book: 11:30 a.m. Nov. 16, 1931. She logged her aircraft as a Beech-Nut Autogiro flying from Greenville to Charleston.
President Franklin Roosevelt also flew into the airport in the late 1930s.
Efforts to renovate the hangar, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, began in the late 1990s, but they stalled significantly on Sept. 11, 2001, with the terrorist strikes on New York and Washington. They have yet to be revived.
The B-25 was housed in the crumbling hangar for several years when it was owned by the Celebrate Freedom Foundation. But earlier this year the organization moved it outside because of the hangar’s deteriorating condition. Since then, the B-25 has been tethered to the tarmac outside the hangar, exposed to the elements.
The airport commission offered to continue to rent the tie-down space to the foundation for $40 per month, but Foster said the bomber needs to be stored indoors.
Exposing it “to the elements is the worst thing that could happen to this historic aircraft,” he said. “We just need a place to store it for 12 months while we develop a restoration plan.”
Eagle Aviation offered to store the plane in one of its maintenance hangars at Hamilton-Owens, but because of its size the bomber would have to be dismantled. “And we want the public to have access to it and use for fundraising events,” Foster said.
Foster added that the foundation would ask the commission to reconsider its decision at its Jan. 15 meeting, and may also appeal to Richland County Council.
However, the airport commission is an advisory board to the council, and it might be a hard sell to get the council to overrule the commission’s decision, said council member Greg Pearce, who is council’s liaison to the commission.
“You could put a tarp over the top of (the plane) and get as much protection as the Curtiss-Wright Hangar (offers); it’s pretty beat up,” he said. “I don’t know what their arguments would be to overrule the airport commission.”
Should they not be allowed use of the hangar, “We might have to take the plane out of Richland County,” Foster said. “That would be very unfortunate for Richland County.”
The B-25 was brought to Columbia from Greenwood and restored to its present state in 1992. Although it is not directly related to the Doolittle Raid, the names of Doolittle’s crew were painted below the cockpit. It became the centerpiece of the Doolittle Raiders’ 50th anniversary, held in Columbia in 1992, and subsequent reunions.
The Raiders volunteered for what many considered a suicide mission in 1942 at Columbia Air Base, which was the largest B-25 training base in the nation during World War II.
The plane cost $30,000 to restore initially, and the funds were raised by Don McElveen of Columbia, founding partner of the CMK Engineering firm, and John Rainey of Camden, an attorney and political activist, as a way to honor the Raiders. McElveen and Rainey deeded the plane to the city of Columbia after a plan to display it at the State Museum didn’t work out.
In 2007, the city gave the plane to the Celebrate Freedom Foundation, which had organized the Doolittle reunions and held annual festivals honoring the military. Those festivals included vintage aircraft. Since then, Celebrate Freedom’s focus has changed from World War II to the Vietnam War, and it offered the B-25 for sale.
Of the 1,660 “C” model B-25s that were built, only seven still exist, including Skunkie, and none fly. Most of those planes came to South Carolina and Columbia Air Base.
SCHAF has estimated the cost of getting the plane flying at $1 million. Once flying, the plane could be used as an ambassador for South Carolina at air shows and events across the country, officials said.
To help raise the money for stabilization, restoration, and perhaps eventually flight, the foundation is offering memberships ranging from $100 (flight engineer) to $5,000 (Raider).
For more information, contact SCHAF at Foster’s law office, (803) 400-1921.