The Things It Carried
How an unremarkable Convair C-131H transported cops, patients, prisoners, and Gerald Ford.
- By Thomas DeFrank
- Air & Space magazine, July 2008
David Hume Kennerly / Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library
(Page 2 of 3)
“I fell in love with the aircraft,” recalls former VR-48 commander Ryan Swah, now a FedEx pilot. “It was reliable, did a nice mission, and never broke down. But it vibrated a lot and sure was noisy.”
In 1990, the squadron converted to McDonnell Douglas C-9 jets and transferred its three Convairs to the state department’s Bureau of International Narcotics, where on February 1, no. 42815 began a new life as a drug interdiction transport. But not before the galley and the rest of its executive features were stripped out and replaced with industrial-strength seating for about 48 soldiers and drug enforcement agents. The airplane was re-registered N7146X.
Assigned to the state department’s air wing at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, the Convair flew missions in Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, and Peru. Because it was nominally under the control of the Peruvian National Police, the airplane became PNP-025. By March 1994, after the state department acquired bigger and faster jets, the Convair, now painted light gray with black trim, was retired and flown to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, outside Tucson, Arizona. In late 1995, Ford’s airplane was acquired by the justice department’s U.S. Marshals Service, which transports thousands of prisoners and illegal aliens each year.
“It didn’t cost a cent,” says Dick Rake, now chief pilot for the marshals’ Mesa, Arizona office. The General Services Administration, he explains, “was getting rid of it, and gave other government agencies first crack at it. It was a beautiful airplane, in surprisingly good shape.”
The Federal Aviation Administration re-registered the aircraft N723ES. Even so, the Marshals Service needed only one airplane, and its other Convair had logged fewer hours. So Ford’s airplane stayed parked in the desert another four years, partially cocooned in sealant to protect its windows and engine nacelles.
In 1999, the airplane finally was rescued from oblivion by IFL Group, a Pontiac, Michigan cargo outfit that bought it and two other 580s at a government auction for slightly more than $1 million. An IFL team drained the preservatives from the Convair’s fuel and oil systems, changed filters, and installed an avionics ferry package to fly it home.
“Overall, it was in reasonably good shape,” says IFL’s Mark Bunner. “The engines were in good condition. The props had aged but were functional.” All that remained of the interior was military-style “parachute” seating along the bulkheads. As it turned out, the new owners never flew it. The airplane wasn’t certified for commercial service, and the retooling costs were prohibitive. It sat in Michigan for seven years.
In the spring of 2006, the Saskatchewan government bought the airplane and began remanufacturing it for firefighting. Overhauled at Kelowna Flightcraft in British Columbia, Tanker 475 had its front door and most of the windows removed and was upgraded with new avionics, wiring, hydraulics, electronics, Allison D-22 engines, and yet another registration: C-GSKQ.