The Things It Carried

How an unremarkable Convair C-131H transported cops, patients, prisoners, and Gerald Ford.

As vice president, Gerald Ford (with pipe) toured the country in a VC-131H, one of several in the executive fleet. (David Hume Kennerly / Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library)
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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.

Last fall, the airplane was flown to Abbottsford, British Columbia, where a tank for flame retardant was mounted on the belly before it flew to its new home at La Ronge, near Saskatchewan’s forests. There it joined two other C-131Hs used as water bombers. All the work at Kelowna, which converted Ford’s airplane into a CV580a, has extended its life. “We intend to use these aircraft for another 20 years,” says Roberts. He cites the reliability of the airframes, the relatively low number of flight hours when purchased, and the low operational use projected for the fleet: typically 100 flight hours a year for each airplane.

So three-quarters of a century later, the one-time flying ambulance and hauler of presidents will come full circle, ending its career as a first responder.

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