Mid Atlantic Air Museum Battled Poisonous Snakes to Bring Back a P-61

Getting a Black Widow fighter plane from its crash site atop a New Guinea mountain to the display hangar of the Mid Atlantic Air Museum has been a 26-year struggle, but the rare plane is finally set up for public viewing.

The plane is one of only four remaining Northrop P-61s worldwide and has been about 60 percent restored by the museum, said Russell A. Strine, president.

The plane's fuselage was recently joined to its inner wings and was able to rest on its own landing gear for the first time since it crashed Jan. 10, 1945.

"It's a big milestone," Strine said.

The next step will be attaching the outer wings and tail section, and the museum's ultimate goal is to get the plane flying again, but that is likely about $1 million and several years away, he said.

The other three Black Widows are in other air museums, but none is able to fly.

The plane was recently put on display at Reading Regional Airport with 27 of the museum's 32 historic aircraft for about a week.

Strine predicted it would be a popular attraction as there is tremendous interest in the plane from aircraft enthusiasts around the world, he said.

"People are very anxious to see it," he said.

Though there were only 750 Black Widows produced and the Army didn't use them until 1944, they were important to America's success in World War II, Russell said.

The planes were America's first aircraft specifically designed as night fighters. They had radar equipment that enabled the crew to locate the enemy in total darkness and a shiny black surface that made them invisible to spotlights.

The Black Widow owned by the museum had been flown only 10 hours and had never been in a combat mission when a pilot taking a proficiency flight crashed at an altitude of about 7,000 feet atop Mount Cyclops after his controls locked.

The plane landed on 100-foot-tall trees, which softened its crash before it hit the ground and allowed the four on board to survive.

Strine's father, Eugene M., a World War II Navy pilot who cofounded the museum, learned in 1979 that the plane was still at the crash site and was owned by the Indonesian government.

The Indonesian government considered it spoils of war, so the Strines negotiated to swap another plane in exchange for it.

"It was encrusted with vines and covered in moss," Russell Strine said.

And the jungle was teeming with poisonous snakes, one of which killed a native hired to help retrieve the plane, he said.

Another difficulty was that the tribe that owned the land where the plane crashed didn't want to relinquish it, he said.

Natives had partially stripped the aircraft and were using tire tubes for slingshots, airplane seats for chairs in their huts and armored plating for cooking surfaces, he said.

With some help from missionaries and the Indonesian government, the Strines were able to remove the plane from tribal land and buy back those materials, he said.

The plane was shipped in pieces and arrived at the museum in April 1991.

Museum staff and volunteer members have done the subsequent rebuilding work.

The process has cost $600,000 so far, all of which came from donations and museum fund drives, Strine said. Pledges ranging from $5 to $25,000 have come from both individuals and organizations, he said. Most of the other Black Widows were scrapped after World War II. The museum has received offers of up to $4.75 million for the plane as is, but Strine said it isn't for sale. "My family has invested 26 years of our lives into this," Strine said. "My dad is 84 and it's been his dream to have this plane fly."

Strine, 54, of Susquehanna Township, Dauphin County, will be the plane's pilot when it can be flown.

Not only does he plan to fly it in the museum's annual World War II weekend but also in air shows nationwide, he said.

Though he has never flown such an aircraft, it won't be that different from the other planes he has piloted, he said.

"It's like the difference between a Buick and Cadillac," he said.

Copyright (c) 2006, Reading Eagle, Pa.

Copyright 2005 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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