MARIETTA — Monday morning’s delivery of four massive engines to Lockheed Martin’s Aviation Wing in Marietta marked the beginning of the end of a more than 12-year passion project for Bill Paden, a retired Lockheed engineer.
The Aviation Wing is a 15.5-acre tract of land at the corner of Atlanta Road and South Cobb Drive near Dobbins Air Reserve Base, where members of the public can see and enter different kinds of military aircraft.
Paden, 83, and other volunteers, who in their retirement have been restoring a C-141B military transport plane, waited eagerly for the delivery at the open parking lot lined with fighter jets, gliders and gunships revived from Lockheed Martin’s boneyard.
As he looked around at the Aviation Wing’s assortment of planes, Paden reminisced about his 41 years at Lockheed and pointed to various former employees, mechanics, Air Force pilots and Marine Corps veterans who followed or assisted in the restoration project.
Paden served as Lockheed’s chief engineer near the end of C-141 production and said the Aviation Wing’s restoration project began in the mid-2000s, years after his retirement in late 1998, when he remembered that he had a letter showing Lockheed’s ownership of a retired YC-141B — the “Y” indicates the plane was a prototype.
C-141Bs were a stretched version of the C-141As, which began production in the early ’60s, Paden said. The C-141Bs, which were first produced in the late ’70s, were 23.3 feet longer than their predecessors.
The Marietta YC-141B had been slated for disposal in the mid-’90s, after cracks were discovered in its wings, Paden said. He said engineers and mechanics at Lockheed decided the plane wasn’t worth fixing, given its remaining life expectancy, so it sat on the Smyrna side of the Lockheed runway for about a decade.
“It sat down in the junkyard for about 10 or 15 years, and I remembered it and found that letter I’d taken when I retired. And I said, ‘Hey, Lockheed. I think you own this airplane based on this letter, and I think you can give it to the museum,” he said. “And they said, ‘Yeah we do, and yeah we will.’”
But that was just the plane’s fuselage, and it was in rough shape, Paden said. The inside had been stripped of electronics, panels and any other parts that could be used for active members of the fleet. The crew of volunteers would have to gather various parts of the plane from across the country and rebuild other parts including the right wing, a two-year project.
Boone Barnes, a former Air Force C-141 navigator, has coordinated the delivery of parts for the aircraft’s restoration. Barnes said he was one of the volunteers who previously traveled to Illinois to gather pieces of the plane’s wings. The transport of the plane’s four engines was the third such trip.
Barnes said the YC-141B’s restoration has been both a community and nationwide effort. The project’s price tag, around $25,000 to $30,000, could have been much higher had many of the participating volunteers, companies and organizations not provided free labor, equipment and other assistance.
During every trip to the Illinois airport, where pieces of a C-141B would need to be taken off another of the retired planes, Barnes said a group of the state’s National Guard from a nearby base provided labor and equipment to assist.
“Without them, this would have been a very, very difficult project,” he said.
Crane operators and Mariettans with trailers also gave their time, and donations to a Facebook page created to fund the restoration came in from all over the country, he said.
Barnes, who hand-painted the lettering on the 77.5-ton aircraft’s body, said the widespread support of the project is a sign of the camaraderie of the men who flew and worked on the planes.
Frank Hadden was a test pilot for Lockheed and flew the YC-141B fuselage that sits on the pavement at the Aviation Wing in the late ’70s. Hadden, 86, said he’d been monitoring the restoration project’s progress through the years.
“Right now, it looks like the world’s biggest glider, but pretty soon it’ll look like a real airplane,” Hadden said as he awaited the first tractor-trailer’s delivery of two engines. “I’m glad to see it come back to life here where people can come look at it and enjoy it and (see) the history of it, because it is part of the history of the Air Force and part of Lockheed too. It’s great to have it here.”
Thousands of people who used to work at Lockheed love to come visit the Aviation Wing, and the YC-141B has only made the Marietta history destination more popular, according to Brad Hawkins, the Aviation Wing’s director.
Only about a dozen of the 285 of C-141Bs produced remain in museums around the country, and now Marietta has one of them, he said.
Hawkins, who took over as director in January, said he’s felt like “a 12-year-old kid” in his role.
“I’m playing with airplanes, and I’m around the veterans who are out here, so it’s a pleasure and an honor to work with these guys. Its inspiring to see the work that they’re willing to do on 85- or 90-degree days,” Hawkins said. “It’s remarkable the passion our unpaid staff pours into this work.”
The volunteers estimate that installation of the four engines will take until the spring to complete, and the plane will still need some cleaning up and patching before work is completely done.
But Hawkins said, even as it sits now, the prototype C-141B is a centerpiece of Lockheed history in Marietta.
“It’s huge for the community,” he said. “Aviation is central to the building of Marietta and Cobb County, so to have one of the aircraft that has been taken from the graveyard, essentially, and brought back to its duty status is just a beautiful thing to see.”