Unless the Minnesota congressional delegation provides some quick support, the Minnesota Air Guard Museum could soon be singing Bye, Bye Blackbird.
The nonprofit museum, which restored an A-12 Blackbird spy plane after rescuing it from a California scrap yard in 1990, has been told that it must return the plane to the Air Force, which plans to hand it over to the Central Intelligence Agency for a commemorative display at its Virginia headquarters.
"They want to see this airplane on a stick in front of their headquarters," said Mark Ness, a retired brigadier general and former commander of the Minnesota Air National Guard.
Ness and others believe the plane could be better used as a teaching exhibit for a proposed new Minnesota Air Guard Museum on the Upper Bluffs area next to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Museum officials are seeking land and money to construct an exhibition hall and aviation education center.
Lt. Col. Michael Fleck, deputy chief of the Air Force Programs and Legislative Division, wrote a museum booster that because the A-12 originated as part of a CIA program, "it is most appropriate that one of the few remaining examples be allocated to them for memorialization." He said the plane would be dedicated to the memory of everyone associated with the CIA's program at its 60th anniversary this year.
Other planes could be used
Minnesota's A-12 isn't the only remaining one. A Blackbird in Birmingham, Ala., was the first to fly an operational mission for the CIA over North Vietnam on May 31, 1967, and it was the last A-12 to fly when it was retired on June 21, 1968, according to James Goodall, a former curator of the Minnesota Air Guard Museum and author of several books on the Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft.
But Fleck wrote in a letter that the histories of other available A-12s were considered before selecting the one in Minnesota for the CIA's commemoration. He noted that the Minnesota Air Guard's 133rd Airlift Wing had no historical association with the plane.
That may be true, Ness said, but he noted that Minnesota technology companies played a critical role in the creation of the Blackbird. Honeywell's Military Avionics Division, Rosemount Inc., and 3M supplied key components for the aircraft. In addition, four of the Blackbird's earliest pilots were Air National Guard members, Goodall said, and three A-12 pilots were from Minnesota: Ken Collins, from the Pipestone area; Denny Sullivan, from the Red Wing area and Mele Vojvodich Jr. from the Duluth area.
Richard Wiessner, a retired colonel who serves on the museum's board, said the Air Force wouldn't take the plane if it knew more about Minnesota's rich aviation history.
According to Wiessner, department store magnate Donald Dayton commissioned the first retail cargo flight in the United States to deliver a 65-pound package to Minneapolis from New York in 1918, and the first Air National Guard unit in the nation was founded in Minnesota by the pilot who made that flight.
Wiessner, 83, a World War II fighter pilot, also noted that Jean Piccard, who flew the first plastic hot-air balloon in 1936, used to fly out of the iron-ore pits in northern Minnesota. John Ackerman, a University of Minnesota physicist and aeronautics professor who worked with Piccard, built a "flying wing" - an airplane without a tail, Wiessner said. And the first pressurized flight suit was developed by Rochester's Mayo Clinic. Without such suits, the A-12 could never have been flown.
Restoration took 3,500 hours
When the museum found the A-12 in Palmdale, Calif., it had to cut the wings off of the 99-foot-long plane to have the parts flown in giant C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft to the Minnesota Air National Guard base.
Volunteers spent more than 3,500 hours restoring the world's fastest jet aircraft, funded with tens of thousands of dollars in donations from local corporations and individuals. Dayton Hudson Corp., which later became Target Corp., produced a half-hour documentary of the project.
Blackbird is popular
Although the museum has 27 aircraft in its collection, the Blackbird is by far the biggest draw, said Stan Christianson, a retired Navy lieutenant and volunteer museum guide.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, however, the museum grounds have been practically off-limits to the public because of tightened security at the air base.
Wiessner said Minnesota millionaire Kenneth Dahlberg, an 89-year-old entrepreneur who was a triple-ace fighter pilot in World War II, has offered to raise money for the new museum if the board can secure the land for it from the Department of Natural Resources. Dahlberg paid for conceptual drawings of the project, which would be called the Minnesota Museum of Aviation and Aviation Learning Center, Wiessner said.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has written a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force in which he "strongly objects to moving the spy plane from Minnesota," spokesman Brian McClung said Friday. Pawlenty cites the restoration work done on the plane by local volunteers, and the support of Minnesota's congressional delegation when the plane was brought here, among his reasons why it should stay. McClung said the letter would be sent by Monday.
Ness said it probably would require a concerted effort from the state's congressional delegation to get the Air Force to change its mind. Museum supporters have reached out for help, he said.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., issued a statement late Friday in which he said he'd "urge the Air Force to reconsider their position on this issue."
Dan Browning - 612-673-4493
ABOUT THE A-12 BLACKBIRD
Code-named Oxcart 128 - 99 feet long - Range: about 3,000 miles - Top speed: Mach 3.56 (2,500 miles per hour) - Maximum altitude: 17.5 miles (92,500 feet) - Had radar-absorbing paint. - Had one seat, though a successor plane, the SR-71, had two - A total of 50 A-12s and SR-71s were built; 30 remain