A vintage B-58 Hustler bomber, the first Air Force bomber to fly at supersonic speeds, thought to be headed back home to Fort Worth is instead on its way to a California aviation museum.
Until last week, the plane, built between 1959 and 1962 at the former Convair plant in west Fort Worth, was being offered to the Fort Worth Aviation Museum at Meacham Airport via the city of Fort Worth. The museum is supported by memberships, donations, admission fees and grants.
The city petitioned the National Museum of the United States Air Force several months ago when it learned the aircraft was going to become available. It’s currently at an air museum near the former Chanute Air Force base in Rantoul, Ill. The museum is being shuttered in June, and the aircraft needed to be moved by the end of July. The base was decommissioned more than 20 years ago.
Because of the tight deadline, Fort Worth offered to help get the plane here by fronting a $250,000 loan to the Fort Worth Aviation Museum. But in the eleventh hour, city officials learned that the Fort Worth museum would need a year beyond an agreed Sept. 30 due date to pay back the loan. The money would come from reserves in the city’s general fund, and city officials wanted the money back before the new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.
All 116 B-58 Hustler bombers were built in Fort Worth. Only eight of the aircraft remain and are on display at other air museums associated with military bases, according to aviation enthusiasts.
Appearing not willing to take the risk of a default, the City Council voted 7-2 to reject the deal with the local museum. Councilmen Jungus Jordan and W.B. “Zim” Zimmerman voted to approve the loan.
“This city has long been touted and historically recognized as a leader in aviation, both commercial aviation and national defense aviation,” Councilman Dennis Shingletonsaid. “The way that it’s presented right now, the burden is placed on its citizenry, and that’s not where it belongs.”
The vote may also have been a stinging reminder of similar situation six years ago in which taxpayers were left holding $2.6 million in an unpaid loan the city made for an aviation-related exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. The loan was made to the Fort Worth Air and Space Museum Foundation, which was set up to raise money for an aviation museum for a planned 2016 opening at Alliance Airport.
Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa said the city staff expedited the request for the plane and council approval under tight time constraints. The council did see the importance of bringing the plane here, but in the end fiscal responsibility played a larger role, Costa said.
“That’s what it came down to,” Costa said. “There were no guarantees.”
Jim Hodgson, a founder and director of the Fort Worth Aviation Museum, said he is disappointed in the council’s action, adding he believed everything was in order. He said he didn’t attend the council meeting because the matter was on the consent agenda, and he learned of the rejection in a text message from a friend who was at the meeting. He said he has not heard from any city official since the vote.
‘Opportunity is gone’
Hodgson said the plane is “a great piece of pride” for Fort Worth and an aircraft “that changed the world of aviation.”
“It was like getting hit with a sledgehammer,” Hodgson said. “It’s a mystery to us. This hurt a lot of people. We never thought another B-58 would come along. This opportunity is gone.”
Hodgson said his group had about $50,000 in donations lined up and was ready to launch a fundraising effort for another $130,000, for a total of $180,000 he said would be needed to move the plane.
Joe Pruzzo, director of the Castle Air Museum in Atwater, Calif., adjacent to the former Castle Air Force Base, said he learned by email Friday that the museum will be getting the aircraft. At 80 planes, the museum boasts one of the largest aviation collections, which includes a Fort Worth-built B-36 bomber.
“It is a crown jewel,” Pruzzo said. “We’ve had a request in for 25 years or more. We were ecstatic. This fills a big hole in the collection. It will definitely be preserved.”
Castle is spending about $200,000 to move the plane and expects to have it by the end of July, Pruzzo said.