What do Floyd Bennett, A Boeing C-97, and The Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation Have in Common?
On November 7, 2017, Floyd Bennett Field (KNOP) in Brooklyn, New York witnessed its last scheduled fixed wing flight departure fly off into history. Floyd Bennett Field has seen the likes of famous aviators such as Howard Hughes, Amelia Earhart, Major Jimmy Doolittle, Douglas ‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan, Jaqueline Cochran, Wiley Post, James Haizlip and now Tim Chopp. In the age of stealth, electric jets, super cruise and new engine options, it was four Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major 28-cylinder four-row radial piston engines that powered the final fixed wing flight out of Floyd Bennett Field.
I was honored to speak with Tim Chopp, the President of the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation and C-97 Aircraft Commander of this historical flight and his First Officer, Paul Stojkov. They both shared their unique look back at this incredible odyssey of flight.
However, just like in every great story we need to go back to the beginning to appreciate what it took to accomplish this particular flight. This aircraft began life as a Boeing KC-97G 52-2718 on April 27, 1954. It served over ten years with the Strategic Air Command (SAC) before being transferred to Air National Guard (ANG) duty in August 1964. A year later it was upgraded to a to a KC-97L with the addition of two General Electric J-47 jet engines installed under the outboard wings. The aircraft remained in USAF ANG service until September 1976 when it was sent to the Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center at Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona. The aircraft was eventually auctioned off and converted to C-97G by removing the aerial refueling equipment and fitting it with cargo doors.
On April 22, 1996 Tim Chopp began realizing his dream when the BAHF purchased one of only two airworthy Boeing C-97’s in the world. Tim explained that there was only one C-97 that participated in the Berlin Airlift and he wanted to make sure that it was represented. By 2000 the BAHF had painted the aircraft in the colors of YC-97A 45-59595, the sole C-97 used in the Berlin Airlift. Tim Chopp shared exclusively with me that the angel portrayed in the artwork of the ‘Angel of Deliverance’ is named Hope. “She is named Hope because in her right hand she is holding a torch which represents the KC-97 delivering fuel or energy. In her left hand she is holding a basket of food representing the C-97 relief mission.” It took almost five years and a loaner engine to get the C-97 to Floyd Bennett Field.
But this was not to be an ordinary flight, this flight would be many years in the making. Early on the main issue became the massive amount of support equipment that was needed such as a crane and the engine supports. Then the BAHF had to find someone who knew the procedure for folding the tail over to get the C-97 into the hanger at Floyd Bennett Field. Tim recalls, “Sometimes it could take us years to find the right equipment. Once we knew the procedure to fold the tail over, it took us two and half years to find the correct jack to perform the job.” Then there were the many hanger closures that delayed the project as well. “There was 9/11 when our hanger was needed for recovery operations. Then there was the flea infestation from the raccoons and the asbestos removal. The hanger was in rough shape as well and needed repairs.” Perhaps Tim Chopp’s biggest concern came on October 29, 2012 in the form of Hurricane Sandy. With the hanger within feet of Jamaica Bay, the tidal surge forecast was for five feet of water inside the hanger. The inundation of salt water could have at the very least destroyed the aircraft landing gear. Fortunately for the BAHF and the C-97, the storm arrived ahead of the forecasted high tide and they only received two inches of standing water in the hanger.
“Be careful what you wish for, you just may get it,” Tim warns. He said, “I had no idea it would take seventeen years to return the C-97 to the skies. I initially thought it would take three to five years to accomplish this flight.”
He then said with a laugh I have told others, “If given the choice of between a sharp stick to the eye or restoring a C-97 to airworthy condition, you may want to choose the stick.”
The next hurdle for the BAHF was to assemble a crew and have the FAA grant final determination on that crews currency. The FAA wanted a pilot current in the aircraft type. However, this wasn’t possible since there wasn’t anyone anywhere current in a C-97. Tim himself hadn’t flown the C-97 in approximately fifteen years. He set out and assembled a world class crew and submitted a plan to the FAA for acceptance and approval which he received.
Tim decided to ask a friend he had known for years from air show circles to be his First Officer. He approached Paul Stojkov who considered it an honor to be asked to be the Co-Pilot for this flight. Paul is currently a commercial airline pilot and has been flying warbirds for over thirty years as a member of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) Cleveland Wing. Paul has a multi-engine rating and has flown not only the B-29 FiFi, but the B-17 and B-24. Paul’s involvement with the CAF and becoming a B-29 pilot began when he was young with a chance meeting with Carter “Mac” McGregor, the first and last B-29 pilot over Japan at an airshow in Texas. “We spoke about airplanes and I accepted his invitation to get involved with the CAF. I went to ground school first, then I was checked out as a co-pilot and eventually pilot in command for a B-29.” Paul told me, “Groups like Tim’s Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation, The Commemorative Air Force and the Yankee Air Museum make it possible for the regular person to participate in flying history.” Paul explains, “Without the mechanics, volunteers, crews, all the pilots in the world couldn’t make these planes fly.” As Paul put it, “Flying is a very small part of it, It’s about honoring the history and keeping these great aircraft going and educating our youth. I was crazy for airplanes when I was a kid. These days I really enjoy being at an airshow and having kids walk up and ask me questions about it and asking if they can get up into the cockpit.”
You might think Paul Stojkov’s affinity for flying warbirds, especially the chance to crew a C-97 would have been enough for him to say yes. However, Paul’s connection to the C-97 and the Berlin Airlift is much deeper than being multi-engine rated. Paul explained that his mother is from Berlin, Germany and was caught behind the Soviet blockade of Western Berlin. Paul more than most recognizes the life saving actions of the many aircrews that participated in the Berlin airlift. “The Berlin Airlift saved my mom’s life” he said. He explained, “You had to realize that at that time Berlin was bombed flat. If a baker had any supplies it may have been only enough to make two or three extra loaves of bread a day. When you think of the candy bars dropped from the aircraft with hankies, you have to realize that a candy bar had to last. Each candy bar was cut up and it became your breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
The remaining crew for this flight consisted of Flight Engineer Ray Stinchcomb and Consulting Flight Engineer George Weekley, lower deck Scanners / Observers Mark Howard and Steve Grubisich. Tim Chopp credited George Weekly as the key to our successful mission. Tim explained that George has 4,000 hours as a flight Engineer and of those hours 3,000 were obtained in the C-97. Paul Stojkov also praised Ray and George as well and gave thanks to Mark and Steve the Scanners who kept an eye on the engines, fuel and all the systems during flight.
However, readying the aircraft wasn’t the only problem the BAHF faced. Over the years, Tim said he had dealt with four different FAA Officials to make this flight work. “The FAA Officials were very cooperative and understanding and by working together we were able to address our problems and get the C-97 out of New York safely. The cooperation began years ago with getting the aircraft classified as experimental. That took most our time in the beginning.” Additionally, Tim Chopp explained the FAA were quite concerned about this flight because we would be in the airspace for one of the worlds busiest airports, New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. (KJFK). Not only did we need a hold on JFK’s traffic to depart, JFK airport was our backup if we needed to divert.
“The C-97 is a very demanding aircraft” Tim said. “I have to thank Scott Gentile who owns A2A Simulations in Connecticut. He created a program and made a simulator for me. He came down to the aircraft and took hundreds of photographs of the aircraft to create the simulator. It has multiple screens and physical controls and pedals. I did everything from pre-trip to simulated flight and I did it religiously every time in the proper sequence. I can’t tell you how valuable that was to me. When I got behind the actual controls it was as if I was behind the simulator controls. I can’t tell you enough just how perfect Scott got it.”
On May 30th, Tim and his volunteers had readied the aircraft, assembled the crew and gained all of the approvals and clearances needed for the flight. They were cleared to depart and arrive at Robert J. Miller Airpark (KMJX)in Ocean County, New Jersey. They would then conduct a check of the aircraft, refuel, add oil and depart to Reading Airport (KRDG) in Reading, Pennsylvania where the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum (MAAM) was hosting their annual World War II Weekend. After warming up the engines and taxiing it looked good that the ‘Angel of Deliverance’ would depart on schedule. Unfortunately, the carburetor on engine three began backfiring and coughing and the flight attempt had to be scrubbed.
The next morning, after a long night of repairs the C-97 was taxiing for takeoff when an oil leak developed on the same engine and it began to smoke. The ground crew had to convince the fire crews not to douse the engine and damage it. It wasn’t looking good for the ‘Angel of Deliverance’ with a second scrubbed takeoff in as many days. Bob Maddox who was present at Floyd Bennett Field said, ”It’s a shame as they were trying to give it a surprise debut at WWII Weekend in Reading”. With the C-97 crew assembled from around the country and others unavailable due to their BAHF C-54 ‘Spirit of Freedom’ commitment at WWII Weekend, it could be some time before the ‘Angel of Deliverance’ can get approval and a crew together again. Bob added, “The good thing is the C-97 and the crew are safe and it’s just a waiting game.” Due to the complexity of the entire C-97 departure, Tim was not that optimistic that it would happen anytime soon after the May 31st attempt. However the scrubbed missions brought along with them additional scrutiny from the U.S. Parks Department. It would take many months of planning and many more months of satisfying the US Parks Departments Safety Officer’s concerns before another attempt could be undertaken.
The summer would pass with everyone wondering when the next attempt would come. Word began to circulate that the next attempt would be on November 6th. However, once again the ‘Angel of Deliverance’ was dealt a card that they could not play. The weather forecast was unfavorable and the mission was scrubbed. Tim would have to wait until November 7th for another attempt. Paul Stojkov said about the scrubbed mission,”Weather and warbirds, you just never know.” The next morning it seemed like misfortune had reared its ugly head once more. The aircraft tug overheated while pulling the ‘Angel of Deliverance’ onto the taxiway. The team rallied and overcame the adversity and got the aircraft to the runway. With the C-97 ready to go, Paul Stojkov went through his check list. Then it was time for the engine run up and this time everything went just fine.
“The airplane was unreal, it purred like a kitten” Tim said. “Imagine this, I take the runway and I can’t leave without the approval of two people. The first was of a US Park Ranger who we had communications with through a hand held radio. The second was the controller at JFK airport. There had to be a temporary hold in place at JFK for us to depart. I made radio contact with the JFK tower and advise, C-97 117GA ready for departure from Floyd Bennet Field. The JFK tower replied, Boeing C-97 117GA, you are released from Floyd Bennett Field. After take off make a right turn and follow the Jersey shoreline and you are cleared to land any runway at JFK.” Tim and I had a good laugh wondering how many times, if ever that direction has ever been given. After fifteen plus years of waiting, the ‘Angel of Deliverance’ was finally ready and clear to slip the bonds of earth. Finally, Tim Chopp was at the controls of his C-97 and beginning the Angel’s departure from New York. Tim said, “When I was on the runway I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. The program was dead unless we got out of New York. I never flew with this crew and I wasn’t sure how we would be together. We were all dedicated to our mission to get the C-97 out of New York.”
For a brief time two things still concerned Tim. The first was the weight and balance of the aircraft. Approximately 3,000 pounds was removed from the aircraft for this flight. Ballast was added to the rear of the aircraft in the form of six water barrels. Tim was hoping that the mathematical calculations for the center of balance were correct. The second concern had to do with flight control flutter. The flight controls were re-covered and his concern was if they weren’t balanced correctly the vibration would have to cause them to divert during flight.
Finally the moment had arrived, Tim and his crew applied power and the ‘Angel of deliverance’ took to the skies. “As soon as the C-97 broke ground, this airplane felt so good.” Tim recalled, “All of my concerns went right out of the window. At 105 knots I pulled back and it was just perfect. I thought to myself, if the engines just keep running this would be good. We made our right turn and we already had achieved 170 knots. Thats when the photo plane radioed us to slowdown, we can’t keep up with you.” Tim put the flaps down and slowed the C-97 to 140 knots so they would be able to keep up and get their photos. “I kept consulting with the flight engineers expecting for something to happen, but nothing ever did. About half way into the flight I began to relax when I realized we were far enough south that if we had a problem we were not returning to JFK. It was only then that I knew that after seventeen years, we were finally out of New York”. I asked Tim if had to time to enjoy the flight? He told me, “I was so in-tune with the aircraft and the big picture, I just kept thinking about what will I do if hypothetically this happens. It was great having Paul onboard with all of his experience in the B-29 FiFi. During the flight, I looked over and told Paul to take the wheel. I asked him if it feels like a B-29? He said it does and I said (laughing) ok then, next time you let me fly FiFi.” I asked Paul Stojkov to describe what it was like to be at the controls of the ‘Angel of Deliverance’. He said, “The C-97 is very straight forward to fly and it is very much like the B-29.” He said, “Due to the C-97 being stripped of its extra weight I found it to be very powerful”.
As Tim prepared to land he had a new problem to encounter. When he received his C-97 rating in 1999, there were only two airworthy C-97’s. One was his and one that was in forest fighting service. Tim said, “When I flew the fire fighting C-97, due to their configuration you landed it at 80% flaps.” As Tim prepared to land at Robert J. Miller Air Park he had set the ‘Angel of Deliverance’ at 100% flaps. Tim explained, “There is big difference between 80% and 100% flaps. It limits how high I can bring the nose up and you will recall I was very close to landing on the nose gear.”
When the C-97 set down at KMJX the aircraft was placed into reverse thrust something that took nearly all the bystanders by surprise. Paul Skojkov explained “The reversible thrust and nose wheel steering are very effective and makes the C-97 much easier to handle then a B-29. “The C-97 taxied to the tarmac for a check of the aircraft and topped off with fuel and oil before departing for Reading, Pennsylvania. There was a moment or two for smiles, congratulations, handshakes and photos. Tim said, “I have to thank Lenny and Donna of Ocean Aire for all of their years of support (at KMJX). I don’t think they really thought the C-97 existed after all of these years I spoke of it without them actually seeing it.”
With weather moving in at Reading, Pennsylvania (KRDG) the departure began to take on urgency. Before long it was time to start the engines again. Watching the four mighty Pratt & Whitney R-4360 Wasp engines breath fire as they started is still an unbelievable site. Soon the chocks were removed and the Angel was taxiing. Tim and his crew once again applied power and the Angel again was back where she belongs. The roar of the engines was just amazing as it soared over me. The flight to Reading was uneventful until the ‘Angel of Deliverance’ approached the airport and the aircraft began to encounter weather of rain mixed with snow. The crew completed their mission by safely landing the ‘Angel of Deliverance’ at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum. Tim explained, “That landing marked the end of phase I, which was to get the C-97 out of New York. Phase II now begins with local training flights and tweaking our maintenance”.
I asked Tim what is the next mission for the BAHF. He said, “First up is getting all of our equipment removed from Floyd Bennet Field by April 1st.” He reminded me they are still in search of a permanent home for their C-54 and C-97 aircraft. For the time being the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum has agreed to store the C-97 while the C-54 is wintering in Winston Salem, North Carolina. The BAHF recently looked at two possible locations for permantly housing their aircraft. The first location is Winston Salem, North Carolina. However the hanger needs modifications to get the C-54 completely inside. As it is currently configured it can only be nosed in the hanger up to the engines. The second location currently being considered is Hagerstown, Maryland. Tim said they are still open to other offers for a permanent home.
Tim closed our conversation by speaking about the BAHF and their mission. “Our plan is to operate the C-97 ‘Angel of Deliverance’ along with their C-54 ‘Spirit of Freedom’ as flying Museums.” The BAHF is still seeking usable engines and parts. “This aircraft, the C-97 takes a lot of money to keep her flying. She runs through 500 gallons an hour of fuel at cruise. It takes a 1,000 gallons an hour of fuel to climb and it has 224 spark plugs. Just to look at it it makes you tired” Tim laughed. “I have personally replaced every hose in that aircraft. We aren’t just talking about the engines, we are talking about every hose throughout that aircraft. That was at a cost of $18,000 just for the material.”
Please consider assisting the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation by visiting them by at www.spiritoffreedom.org.