GIVING OLD AIRPLANES NEW LIFE
The Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum (also known as the SAC Aerospace Museum), located between Omaha and Lincoln off Interstate 80 in Nebraska, is home to one of the top collections of strategic aircraft and nuclear missiles used by the United States Air Force (USAF) during the Cold War.
In 1948, General LeMay took over Strategic Air Command as Commander-in-Chief; a facility at the time that was severely understaffed – the B-29 groups left after World War II were untrained and a vast majority of its aircraft were not operational. After a mock bomb raid performed in Dayton, OH where most of the bombers missed their targets by one to two miles, General LeMay took action. He implemented a robust training program with long hours of hard work for his men, secured extensive fleets of new bombers, began missile development and established a strict command center, turning SAC into one of the most powerful military units in the world, and earning him the title ‘Father of the Strategic Air Command.’ During his tenure, the SAC grew from 21 bases in the United States to 38, plus 30 overseas. At the time, LeMay envisioned a museum that would preserve historic strategic aircraft.
In 1959, Col. A. A. Arnhym, assistant to LeMay’s successor, General Thomas S. Power, asked the U.S. Air Force for permission to create a museum at Offutt Air Force Base (Offutt) that focused on the SAC. Permission was granted and the original Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum, an outdoor display, opened at Offutt, adjacent to Bellevue, NE.
After the State of Nebraska took ownership of the museum in 1970, it was renamed the Strategic Air Command Museum and by 1972, it showcased 32 aircraft, five missiles and hundreds of pieces of equipment – becoming a popular tourist destination for history buffs and the curious public alike.
Though the museum was popular, concerns arose over the decades as the aircraft, exposed to elements, began to show signs of deterioration. The overall vision to see the collection grow and flourish would require a bigger space, preferably indoors. In 1998, after community leaders lobbied to design and build a new indoor facility and raising over 30 million dollars, the museum was moved to its current location in Ashland, NE – a 330,000-square foot, state-of-the-art building featuring a 525-glass panel atrium designed and built around a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. The museum also includes two aircraft display hangars, traveling exhibit area, children’s interactive gallery, museum store, 200-seat theater, and an aircraft restoration gallery.
The paint detail and seeing it all come together at the end is the happiest and most fulfilling time.Mark "Hambone" Hamilton
The Restoration Gallery
“I retired from the Air Force in 1994, and got involved in the restoration process,” explained Mark “Hambone” Hamilton, Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum’s Restoration Manager. “Restorations at Offutt in Bellevue took place in a 50x100 Quonset hut with a canvas covering. We started with the smaller aircraft, since those would be the aircraft hanging in the new location the Museum inhabits now.”
The restoration process gets moving with an aircraft inspection that takes the plane down to its bones, beginning with complete stripping of up to eight coats of paint with a process called soda blasting – the shooting of baking soda at a high speed and pressure. The aircraft is washed and assessed for structural soundness before crews begin to dismantle it, starting with flight control surfaces; carefully sorting and storing each item for restoration and installation at a later time.
The most time consuming steps involve two crews working simultaneously; the interior crew removes equipment and repairs or restores any broken windows, floor panels and structural pieces while the exterior crew removes inspection and access panels, revealing the inside of the aircraft – often filled with bird’s nests and other debris. “You get to find out what’s been living in the aircraft and believe me, when they sit outside, it does not take them long to fill up,” Hamilton laughed. The exterior crew is also responsible for manually stripping paint from the landing gear and gear wells. Hamilton pointed out it is not uncommon to uncover more debris and bird nests throughout the duration of a restoration project.
Painting the aircraft requires diligence; sections are masked off to allow for each paint color layer and the details of the aircraft – Insignia, USAF markings, stars and bars and any other distinguished markings – are carefully completed by hand. Crews refer to Air Force technical orders, photographs and other documentation, guaranteeing an accurate and visually timeless restoration. “The paint detail and seeing it all come together at the end is the happiest and most fulfilling time,” Hamilton reveled.
The indoor restoration space, named the Durham Restoration Gallery, employs one full-time manager, one full-time employee and one part-time employee, backed by an all-volunteer team of approximately 30. The current volunteer team averages eight years’ restoration experience, volunteering 600-1,000 hours per month and 9,500 hours annually. “Smaller fighter jets average two years’ restoration time while larger bombers can take three to five years. It’s not all glamour. It’s hard and dirty work,” Hamilton declared. “This team, they know what they are doing, they know their niche and I’ve been lucky so far.”
Hamilton and his team of volunteers embarked on the restoration project EC-135 “Looking Glass” in April 2015 – the largest restoration endeavor ever for the museum, at an estimated cost of $200,000. “This aircraft is huge. It’s 136-foot long and it’s stuffed with equipment from front to back,” Hamilton explained.
The EC-135 “Looking Glass,” a powerful air command center responsible for protecting the United States since 1961, mirrored the command center underground at SAC headquarters. It remained airborne 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year for 30 years – loaded with high-tech equipment and staffed with seven operational teams representing all branches of the armed services. The iconic aircraft symbolized the power of the United States, ready to assume control at any time should the SAC become inoperable. “Looking Glass” was retired in 1992, leaving the sophisticated aircraft command center dormant, and giving Hamilton and his team a new and complex project. “Normally, you have a cargo plane, or a bomber with a cockpit, tail end and bomb bays – not this one,” Hamilton continued, “One of the guys does interior and components. He started researching the books, made up a tagging system, tagged every component and had it correlated to each section in the book. There’s rack and wires and components from front to back. There are little tags everywhere!”
Once complete, the EC-135 “Looking Glass” restoration will be an indoor walk-through exhibit, enhancing SAC Aerospace Museum’s mission “to preserve the history of Strategic Air Command, the Cold War and aerospace artifacts and to inspire learning through imaginative, innovative, and inspirational programs and exhibits.”