Flying Old School In Style Through History.
The Cactus Air Force In Carson City, Nevada
FLYING OLD SCHOOL STYLE: THE CACTUS AIR FORCE
Carson City Based Museum & Flight Facility In Nevada Keeps The Texture Of Old School & Experimental Military Machinery Alive
The Cactus Air Force & its connected Wings and Wheels Museum is a slice of American history nestled at the Carson City Public Airport in Carson City, Nevada.
Nestled on the western edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, with vast expanses of desert and majestic and clear Lake Tahoe, the city is one of the smaller state capitols in the country, but chock full of history of western migration of the west
The brilliant clear skies and nice weather made the destination one for settlers and aviation enthusiasts alike, and the museum serves as a beacon of America’s aviation history.
Shawn Mcgettigan, a spokesman, restorer and mechanic at the privately owned organization said the aim of the museum is to restore as many American military aircraft as possible and to work to excite the public about the history of aviation.
The museum has a staff of restorers who work to give the public free tours of the more than 15 airworthy craft, restored military ground vehicles and “hangar queens” that rest inside the building.
“I grew up in aviation,” Mcgettigan relates. “In the old days you could walk into an airport, and a mechanic would let you watch him work and maybe give you a ride. No one would question anything. In today’s world that wouldn’t happen.”
McGettigan became fascinated in the aerospace industry due in part to his father, who worked on developing aircraft. His father would pull him from school to watch flying demonstrations for aircraft he had a part in creating, including the Blackhawk helicopter.
“He told my mom that he was taking me someplace to learn something I couldn’t learn in school. I have been flying aircraft with my dad since I was five. And we have flown all over the country in small aircraft.”
But hanging around an airfield is just something kids cannot really do these days, explains McGettigan.
McGettigan said for a number of reasons, including security concerns, most airports and fields are areas not accessible by the public. Not so with the Cactus Air Force. Anyone can waltz in and get a free tour of the facility, which is a throwback to the old days.
It is very important to the owner of CAF, who remains anonymous, according to McGettigan, that all the aircraft at the hangar are as authentic as possible. This means restoration to their original configuration as operated during their era of American Military history.
Sometimes though what set them apart individually in their era was the addition of non-traditional markings. One example, relayed by McGettigan, is that one helicopter gunship they have: The Cobra AH1 Attack Helicopter has a tiger painted on it, where in history it would not have one. His boss found the aircraft at a depot in California, complete with an Artic paint scheme and brought it back to Carson City where they put it together with a tail boom and other parts.
“It’s something to draw them over and to bring them out [because it may be] something they may not be sure about and something [that gets] them asking”.
Many of the aircraft take years to get back into flying condition, and some will never fly again for a variety of reasons. McGettigan says, in many instances, the parts are no longer being manufactured for the aircraft. Sometimes they can find old parts in a junkyard or barn. Other times they find them through collectors — who typically charge exorbitant prices. If it becomes cost prohibitive, the aircraft become “hangar queens.”
“These [craft] will never fly again for multiple reasons,” he said. “[But they still can] become “Hangar Queens and are pretty to look at.”
One example of a “Hanger Queen” that the museum has on exhibition is an F86 Sabre, an early jet plane, but the engine to replace an older one is priceless and unobtainable.
Other aircraft though such as a Cessna 02 which was a spotter plane used during Vietnam, have been restored.
“[The Cessna 02] was a spotter and it would fly low and slow, and shoot colored smoke at targets to let the jets knew where to drop bombs,” he said. “It took us three years to get [that craft] into flying condition.”
One of McGettigan’s favorite aircraft though is a Vietnam-era helicopter gunship called the AH1 Cobra. For him, it is unique.
“It’s a gunship that was really the first of its kind because it was the first attack helicopter really designed for that role.”
Helicopters before then were primarily used to transport troops to different areas or to evacuate casualties from combat zones not for aggressive action.
Another unique aircraft in the hangar, the TBM Avenger, is a World War II aircraft which functioned as a prop-driven torpedo bomber and was flown by former President George Bush, Sr. during World War II. This same model plane is also what he was shot down in over the Pacific. McGettigan relates that the CAF pilots are currently on call to fly the Avenger in the event of the Sr. Bush's future funeral.
In terms of finding these old aircraft, McGettigan said he and his fellow pilots travel all over the country to look for items.
“Sometimes there are barn finds,” he explains. “The grandfather passes away in a family and the kids go out to the old barn....and sure enough there is a P51 Mustang out there. They [end up] sitting on [top of] a $1 million plane.
Another important angle of this destination is to give military combat veterans a chance to see aircraft they once flew.
“We had a man come out with his wife...and he had crewed on Cobra gunships during Vietnam War. The gunships that he maintained were painted like ours and he was showing us stuff we didn’t know," explains McGettigan. The veteran, who had initially crewed in Alaska, said the original Cobra had a different Canaan heavy lift rotor-head versus the more active duty Hueys which had an older list. This essentially made the Cobra "a Huey cut in half".
One thing the Cactus Air Force staff likes to do is take out military vehicles and cruise over Carson City giving rides to certain veterans.
Veterans are not the only ones who can take rides on the motorized vehicles. McGettigan said under certain circumstances the public can take paid rides in many of the aircraft. A lot of the working military aircraft however are experimental in nature when they were commissioned for use and because of this, the FAA forbids non-pilots from riding in them. Crafts like Bush Senior's TVM Avenger are considered experimental as is the A26 and the OV10 Bronco. Even the Cobra is considered experimental.
He said, however, the views above Carson City are amazing.
Flying in Northern Nevada is beautiful,” he said. “We have small rolling hills and the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains, with their big pine trees and the gorgeous blue water of Lake Tahoe. It's always breathtaking to see from the air or from the ground”.
Ultimately though, the major goal of the Cactus Air Force is to preserve history.
“We want future generations to be able to see and look and this equipment and thank our fine young men and women who served their country in these [craft],” he said. “If we didn’t have [the might of] these vehicles we might not be speaking English.”
A graduate of Central Michigan University in Journalism, Jason has served as a news reporter for the Oscoda County Herald,
Oscoda Press and Iosco County News-Herald. He is also an avid fisherman.