Gate Guardians

by Jim Hanson
Published in Midwest Flyer – December 2018/January 2019

We’ve all seen them…airplanes, helicopters, tanks, artillery pieces, and other pieces of military hardware on display at military bases and airfields, VFW and American Legion posts, and museums. Often, these are the very types of aircraft and vehicles that were based at a military installation. Sometimes, these old soldiers “guard the gate” at civilian airports as well.

Obtaining An Aircraft For Your Airport

In the 1990s, I was the manager of the Owatonna, Minnesota airport (among others). Someone on the local airport commission asked about obtaining an aircraft for static display. I had been involved with obtaining a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star for the Albert Lea, Minnesota airport in the 1960s. (See Sidebar #1.) I advised them that this was no small undertaking, but they went ahead with it, anyhow.

Like most major projects, this one initially was filled with wild enthusiasm. Discussions were held on “what kind of airplane should we ask for?” I counseled, “a small one. It won’t be flown in here…it must be trucked in…get a small aircraft.” I recommended a Northrop T-38 Talon training aircraft; the aircraft is sleek, supersonic, and best of all, it is small enough to fit on a truck. At the time, “The Boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona, was in charge of applications. I had the Owatonna City Council provide a letter of request. (See Sidebar #1.)

The T-38 fleet was being downsized, and several were available. We chose one located at Wichita Falls, Texas, as it was the closest one to us. The aircraft had a cracked wing spar that precluded further flight. The city signed the documents, and it was ours.

Reality Sets In

We had 60 days to remove the aircraft. The city had not allocated money to send a team to Texas or to truck it back, and no plans had been made for a site to reassemble it, or for the display. As the deadline approached, I contacted long-time Owatonna pilot and businessman, Buzz Kaplan, head of the Owatonna Tool Company, about providing transportation. He arranged with their traffic department to back-haul the aircraft using an open-top truck on one of their delivery runs, but that left only a week to get it disassembled and loaded. I provided my Cessna 206 and five of my mechanics to fly down, disassemble the aircraft, and load it.

The crew flew down to Wichita Falls, a distance of 650 nm. The airport is a joint-use municipal airport with Sheppard Air Force Base. Arriving after the tower closed, our crew taxied around looking for a place to park. Noticing a car parked on the edge of the ramp with the lights on, they shut down the aircraft and walked over to it, finding the two military air police (AP) guards asleep. The APs ordered our crew of five mechanics to lie down on the ground and asked them what they were doing there. Our crew told the APs that they had orders to pick up an airplane and offered to show them the paperwork, but they were detained at base headquarters while the base commander was summoned. Arriving at 6:00 a.m., the base commander also asked our crew why they were there. Our crew provided the base commander with details, including the fact they had found the guards asleep. Things turned around rather quickly!

Our truck would be ready in a matter of hours. Though recipients of the donated aircraft are to take it apart at their own expense, because our crew had been detained, the base commander ordered personnel to assist them, which was really nice of him. They made it just in time for the arrival of the truck, and got the aircraft loaded for transport. Just before leaving, one of the military technicians approached the aircraft with a hammer, explaining that the aircraft had to be “demilitarized.” He took the hammer to every gauge in the cockpit, rendering them inoperable. (The military does not want anyone to profit from their donations.)

The aircraft was transported to Owatonna, and reassembled in our hangar. Opinions were again offered on how best to display the aircraft – in an in-flight position on a plinth, in a banked position on a plinth, on a pedestal with the gear down…even on the ground and on its gear so it can be towed in parades. The problem was there was no money to accomplish ANY of these displays, and after a few months, we needed our hangar back, so a local pilot stored the aircraft for several years.

A Display Comes Together

The Kaplans and my wife and I had flown their Cessna Caravan across the Atlantic and toured Europe, the Mediterranean, and North Africa. After landing at Le Bourget Aerodrome in Paris, we visited the museum there, and on the spot where Lindbergh touched down on his epic flight, the French had mounted three Fouga CM.170 Magister training jets. The Magisters are about 60% of the size of the T-38, and they were mounted with two aircraft horizontally and opposing each other, and one going vertical. “That’s the way we should mount the T-38 back in Owatonna!” I told Buzz. After consideration, he rejected the idea, saying “The T-38 is too heavy to mount horizontally.” On the way back across the Atlantic, we discussed it again, and I suggested simply mounting the aircraft vertically. “No,” was his reply. “The wind would catch it and blow it over.” After reconsideration, I proposed that we get two more aircraft, and replicate the Thunderbirds’ trademark maneuver, the Vertical Bomb Burst. Buzz responded with “THAT’S a pretty cavalier attitude – THREE T-38s?” In turn, I responded with “C’mon…I got one airplane…we just need two more!”

Buzz knew that mounting even one airplane would be expensive, and something the city probably could not afford. He mentioned the possibility of putting the display in front of his new transportation museum (this is the first confirmation there was going to BE a museum). On arrival back home, Buzz had engineering studies done on the mounting; the nose of the aircraft would be 71 feet in the air, the three aircraft would balance each other, and to withstand winds up to 100 knots, it would require 308 tons of concrete and steel for the base.

More Problems

I contacted Davis-Monthan AFB again, and told them we wanted to do a tribute to the Thunderbirds, and they gave us the approval. The concrete/steel base was installed, and work started on the first aircraft in our possession. The promised aircraft were months late in getting released, and when I contacted Davis-Monthan again, I was told that the Air Force had placed all requests for aircraft through Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, home of the Air Force Museum. Then we were told that the Air Force had some issues with parts getting into civilian hands and resold, so they put our authorization on indefinite hold.

I explained to officials that we already had the base in place on their assurance that we would have the aircraft, and stated: “In this part of the country, we consider a promise as just that – a promise of performance.” The official we spoke with said there was nothing he could do, so I went congressional with the issue, explaining that we had incurred considerable expense in preparing for the display. Both our senator and congressman backed us, assuring “The Air Force will not get their desired appropriation until you get your aircraft.” In the end, we got our aircraft and had them mounted. Google “Owatonna T-38s” for photos. It has become a signature of the city, located at the airport and adjacent to I-35.

Lessons Learned

•Have your paperwork in order, and document all phone conversations, emails, and contacts.

•Carefully consider the type of aircraft you can use; it must be of a manageable size. Consider helicopters…they make a dramatic display, are easy to haul, and are more resistant to wind.

•Consider alternatives. Some aircraft (like the T-38) are in high demand because of the ease of transport. You may be offered an alternate aircraft. Be ready with a second choice.

•Have a plan for display BEFORE you make application. It eliminates the uncertainty and delay.

•This should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway, have a budget and money allocated for picking up the aircraft, storing it, and displaying it.

•Have a plan and a budget for maintaining the display. (See Sidebar #2).

•An alternative. It may be easier to simply get a damaged civilian aircraft. They can be purchased relatively inexpensively, they are much lighter to mount, they are easy to maintain. In Canada, the entire fleet of aerobatic Beech Musketeer trainers have become “Gate Guardians.”

•“Tell the story.” What good is a display without information on what is being displayed, and why it is important? Describe the aircraft, how it was used, who may have flown it, how old it is and acknowledge who helped to get it displayed, either by supporting the project personally or financially.

Having a “Gate Guardian” can be inspiring. For veterans, it reminds them of the time they served. For pilots, it reminds them of adventures of military aviation. For kids, a retired aircraft can be the source of a thousand daydreams, and may inspire them to learn to fly. Just go into the project with your eyes wide open.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson has been flying for 56 years and has flown more than 30,000 hours. He has been managing the Albert Lea, Minnesota airport for 37 years, and has managed other Minnesota airports for many years as well. At his age, Jim is something of a “Gate Guardian” himself (an old relic), but perhaps an inspiration for others to learn to fly. You can contact him at 507-373-0608, or via email at

Sidebar #1: How to apply for display aircraft.

The following is the form and format on how to apply for surplus aircraft. The National Museum of the USAF coordinates the LOAN (and it IS a loan) of surplus aircraft:

Note that the program covers municipalities, veteran organizations, and qualified museums. Also note the conditions of display.

Here are some tips to help you:

1) Why not include your local veteran organization to cosponsor your display aircraft? A veteran organization can usually provide manpower for upkeep and the inclusion of these posts will help ensure that far more people are aware of “their” adopted aircraft.

2) Your senator or congressman can be one of your biggest allies, but save that weapon until you NEED it. Nobody likes to be pressured on what to do, but if you run into a wall, by all means use every tool at your disposal.

Sidebar #2: Maintaining your display aircraft.

There are far too many display aircraft falling into disrepair. A “condition of loan” of the aircraft requires that you maintain it, and if not maintained, you must return it. This is a large potential issue. A poorly-maintained aircraft may be more of a liability to the airport than an asset.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

•Keep the aircraft vandal-free. Position it in a well-lit area. Mount it high enough that it is inaccessible (see photo of T-33).

•Seal all of the openings to prevent it from becoming a home for birds. Bird droppings cause corrosion.

•Lock the controls with external locks to prevent control-surface flopping.

•Lock the canopies or doors to prevent entry.

•Have a substantial mounting. We used a 30 ft. 8-inch steel beam driven 20 feet into the ground, inside a concrete sewer casement filled with cement. The concrete casement is impossible to climb.

•Arrange for maintenance “pre-need.” If the city (who signed the sponsorship agreement) won’t do it, the veteran organizations can be a big help. Don’t let appearance go downhill. THAT’S WORSE THAN NOT HAVING A MONUMENT AT ALL!

Sidebar #3: Another alternative for maintenance.

Our city allocated money for cleaning and polishing supplies, but like most cities in the north, our city maintenance workers are stretched thin, trying to get an entire year of maintenance items accomplished in a summer comprising only half the year. The T-33 was looking dull and faded.

As a former head of the local Elks Lodge, we hosted courts of honor for Eagle Scout recipients. These young men (typically 14 to 18 years of age) are tasked with not only mastering their required Life Scout requirements, but more than DOUBLING those requirements. One of the most challenging requirements is for them to do a project for “any religious organization, any school, or their community;” also to “plan, develop, and give leadership to others in a service project.” This requirement for community service not only demonstrates and cements their involvement in the community, but they are required to PLAN their chosen project, PRESENT the plan for prior approval, and SUPERVISE OTHERS in the execution of the plan. These projects go far beyond merit badges…they prepare the Scout for true community participation, and Eagle Scouts are ACHIEVERS! Only 4% of Scouts will attain Eagle status. As an indicator of what kind of young men this program turns out, I found that nearly half of all American astronauts were Eagle Scouts.

I figured that this project would not only benefit the community, but it would honor veterans and national service. I contacted the Boy Scouts Administrative Council about finding a Scout willing to take on the project. After several false starts, I received a call from Scout Stirling Hart. Though only 13, he wanted to discuss the project – the timetable, work involved, and what it would do for the community. I explained that the work involved polishing the T-33, with material to be provided by the city and the labor as part of his Eagle project. He asked a lot of questions…he had to have his parents’ permission, and submit the project to the Scout Council for approval. This required a follow-up meeting so he could produce his plan. One of the issues he had to overcome is that the Scout cannot handle dangerous power tools or high ladders. Stirling asked for and received a ruling that buffers would not be considered dangerous, and overcame the ladder requirement by recruiting adults to do the polishing on the high vertical stabilizer to comply with regulations. The city provided work platforms for access and safety, and Stirling rented additional platforms.

     The work was performed over three days by Stirling and his crew. It required three levels of polishing, using coarse to fine polish. The aircraft came out looking good. The next step for spring 2019 will be to repaint the canopy and the “Stars & Bars” on the fuselage – a relatively minor job. Even though the work is supposed to be a volunteer operation, I was so proud of his initiative and the way he handled this community pride project that I donated three hours of flight instruction to him to portion out as he sees fit. (After all, compensation is part of overseeing others!)

If your “Gate Guardian” could use some “sprucing up,” consider involving the Eagle Scouts or veteran groups, like the Legion Riders, to participate!

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