Law gives life to dream - Funds sought to land C-141

Post date: Jan 30, 2011 11:18:59 PM

Published on Saturday, January 01, 2011

By SB Sun Staff Writer

SAN BERNARDINO - Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Ed Jeffries is back up in the air.

The 83-year-old San Bernardino veteran calls it Cloud Nine.

Jeffries and his "old crew dogs" of the 63/445 Norton Veterans Group are focused on a particular four-engine jet cargo plane and their plan to bring it to San Bernardino.

The nonprofit group has been working for two years to get the first 40 feet of a rare C-141 aircraft transported from Tucson's Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to the former Norton Air Force Base as a memorial honoring both service members and civilians who served aboard the cargo plane and at Norton.

Last week, Jeffries' craggy face, etched with deep lines, lighted up when he learned of a new piece of legislation that could help make the dream a reality.

"I felt like I was floating on Cloud Nine at first - it was such good news," said Jeffries, a retired flight engineer who logged more than 16,000 hours in C-141s in his 25-year career.

On Dec. 16, Congress passed the Federal Surplus Personal Property Donation Program, legislation that says veterans groups are eligible to receive donated items from the federal government.

That would include a C-141.

"This legislation could make it so much easier to get the airplane," Jeffries said.

However, wording in the recent legislation may prove to be yet another obstacle in the C-141 saga.

"I thought we had been given a nice Christmas present, but the new legislation, which the president already signed into law, did not include our veterans group - only Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans," Jeffries said.

Sandra Klar, a disposal property specialist with the Government Services Administration in San Francisco, said she was waiting to be briefed by the Department of Veterans Affairs as to what veterans groups would be eligible, according to Jeffries.

"If they interpret it as all veterans groups, that puts us in," he said. "If not, it's just another hurdle."

Purchasing the aircraft would cost the Norton veterans group $20,000 - money they do not have.

As it is, there could be be as much as $75,000 in supplemental costs, according to Jeffries.

The memorial will utilize the front fuselage, including the full cockpit, crew rest and front portion of the cargo compartment - everything forward of the wing.

Jeffries, who served in three wars under seven presidents, has been leading the contingent of Air Force veterans to bring the aircraft to San Bernardino for free public tours at the former base.

In recent months, the project has hit a series of hurdles - mainly in fundraising for the project.

But the skies may still open up for the dream of a C-141 memorial at Norton.

Since August, the veterans group has been working with the office of Rep. Joe Baca, D-San Bernardino, through conversations and meetings with a Baca representative, Jess Vizcaino.

"I was proud to support this legislation when it came before me in the House of Representatives last week," said Baca, who supported the bill.

"Thanks to S. 3794, veterans organizations like the 63/445 Norton Veterans Group will now be able to go through the state and be eligible to receive federal surplus items," Baca said.

"My office was eager to assist our local veterans in their efforts to bring the C-141 aircraft back to Norton."

According to Jeffries, the group would go through the state and the process would involve only a "minor bit of paperwork."

In all, the new legislation would save one year's worth of paperwork, said the raspy-voiced Jeffries, whose cancer surgeries have left him with 1 1/4 lungs.

For Jeffries, the C-141 is more than an airplane.

The vintage, four-engine, giant jet cargo plane is one reason for living.

Kathy, Jeffries' wife of 43 years, said getting the C-141 is what keeps him going.

"I think if I lose this airplane, I'd just go out," he said.

Jeffries described a recent nightmare in which the C-141 project died, foreshadowing his own death.

"This project has given me endurance," said Jeffries, who considers himself a patient man.

He estimates he's logged more than 1,000 phone calls in a worn book he calls his "bible."

To Jeffries' knowledge, there are only four of the cargo giants left in "bone yards" across the country.

"They're extinct - there are no more flying," he said.

The planes enjoyed an illustrious 43-year career between 1964 and 2006.

In their heyday in 1964, 60 of the aircraft were assigned to Norton. By September 1993, the last of the C-141s at Norton were reassigned.

A workhorse of the Air Force, the plane transported moon rocks, supplies, the returning Hanoi prisoners, Bob Hope's annual USO troupe, returning soldiers and VIPs, as well as undertaking mercy missions and the re-supply of scientific missions in Antarctica and the South Pole.

Additional cost estimates for the San Bernardino C-141 so far include $2,500 for a route survey from Arizona and about $15,000 to get the chopped, enclosed aircraft "dressed up."

Jeffries said expenses may range between $50,000 and $75,000.

"When it gets here, we'll have to clean it with a pressure wash and steam - the interior is terrible with bird droppings and feathers."

The total price tag will also figure in fencing, signage and liability insurance.