The Vintage Flying Museum is home to a collection of 19 planes, from the World War II era to the present. They’re there for education, inspiration and preservation.
And they can still fly missions, as the C-49 “Southern Cross,” a 1942 DC-3, did Wednesday morning when it took off for Beaumont, loaded with supplies to aid victims of Hurricane Harvey.
“There’s food, there’s baby formula, there’s diapers, wipes, you need it, stuff that somebody would need to survive,” said J.R. Hoffman, a volunteer on the ground crew for the aircraft, which was making its first flight down to the coast. “First aid kits, Band-Aids, all kinds of things. Toothpaste. On board today, they’ve got a couple of cases of peanut butter, Gatorade, sports drinks.”
The plane is usually used for tours, World War II re-enactments and parachute drops, but it served a different purpose in its roughly 300-mile flight to Beaumont, where the city’s drinking water system shut down during the flooding. All told, about 5,000 pounds of supplies were on the two-hour flight. In Beaumont, about two dozen volunteers greeted the plane with trucks and flatbed trailers to carry the supplies away.
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Earlier this week, the Southern Cross was in Detroit and Oshkosh, Wisconsin, before flying into Fort Worth. According to Hoffman, about half the donated supplies on the plane came from Detroit, with three pallets of supplies coming from Fort Worth.
The Southern Cross was built as a civilian plane but was taken over by the Army Air Corps during World War II and converted to a C-49, which has a lighter floor and narrower doors than a C-47. After the war, it was converted back to civilian use as an airliner and was even used as an executive plane in the presidential fleet in Mexico for a while.
Civilian pilots have been a big part of the Hurricane Harvey relief effort, flying into hard-to-reach areas in Texas and Louisiana.
Operation Airdrop, a network of private pilots who have been making supply runs to the coast, was quick to coordinate with the Vintage Flying Museum. The group was co-founded by John Clay Wolfe, who hosts a syndicated radio show that bears his name and originates from a studio off Camp Bowie Boulevard. (The show airs in more than a dozen markets, including from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays on KZPS/“Lone Star” 92.5.)
Wolfe is known as a car guy. Although his show is more of a loose-limbed talk show, its roots are in his ability to always give a car buyer a better deal than a dealer can. He has bought tens of thousands of cars, according to his website, www.givemethevin.com.
But when it comes to Operation Airdrop, he’s an airplane guy. As he was walking into an auto auction last week, he got a call from an old friend named Doug Jackson, who said that they should do something to help out with Harvey relief.
“I told him I’d been thinking same thing,” Wolfe says in an email. “I said I need something good to put the force of my radio network behind. ... We can combine the airwaves with airplanes — sounds perfect.”
Wolfe had Rob Lidyard, his IT tech, search for an unclaimed Operation Airdrop URL. One was taken by a squatter, but when Wolfe and Lidyard added a hyphen — www.operation-airdrop.com — they found it was available. They bought it, built a site and started a Facebook page for pilots the evening of Aug. 29.
By the next morning, they had 100 members, and by later that same day they had two missions being flown. Those first missions involved flying medicine from New Mexico to Beaumont, and cash from The Salvation Army to several smaller airfields along the coast.
A little over a week later, Operation Airdrop is up to over 850 members. Besides delivering tons of supplies, they’ve flown nurses and medicine from Dallas to Beaumont for the National Guard. While Texas missions are expected to continue for several more weeks, they’re already preparing for missions to Florida in response to the threat of Hurricane Irma.
The operation has a war-room-style operations center in Denton manned by a software pro, a full-time controller, an airlines logistics expert, and other pilots as mission control, Wolfe said. The operations volunteers schedule freight, update the Federal Aviation Administration for clearance codes, handle aircraft weight and fuel information and provide constant weather updates to the volunteer pilots.
“No one goes home until every flight is accounted for safe and sound,” Wolfe said.
A Facebook page has been set up to help coordinate missions and collect proper supplies and to update members on the status of missions. Posts on the page aren’t limited to pilots but also include requests for ground transportation to move supplies.
To donate, visit www.operation-airdrop.com.
Note: An earlier version of this story attributed the joint relief effort to a different Fort Worth aviation museum. The Vintage Flying Museum participated in Operation Airdrop.
Star-Telegram photographer Rodger Mallison contributed to this report.