Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation – C-54 ‘Spirit of Freedom’ Reborn

The BAHF's Spirit of Freedom sitting on the ramp in the early-morning sun following her repaint in October. The aircraft has already begun taking part in air shows again, offering a much-needed uplift to the team following a supremely challenging couple of years. (photo by Kevin Kearney)
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Following the devastating damage which a tornado inflicted upon the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation’s (BAHF) long-serving Douglas C-54E Skymaster Spirit of Freedom in Walterboro, South Carolina during April, 2020, one could be forgiven for wondering whether the organization could rebound from such a body blow. But such thoughts surely underestimated the drive of those involved, determination which mirrors the spirit of the aircrews whom they celebrate for their bravery and sacrifice in saving West Berlin from starvation under the 11 month Soviet blockade of 1948/49.

The Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation’s first Douglas Skymaster, C-54E/R5D 44-9144/BuNo.90414, seen here some years prior to the devastating tornado damage which crippled the aircraft in April, 2020.
(photo by Tomás Del Coro via wikimedia)

While their original C-54/R5D (seen above) might well have suffered mortal wounds in the storm, the volunteers at the BAHF have worked hard to resurrect the Spirit of Freedom in a new airframe, this being C-54D 43-17228. Interestingly, unlike their original Skymaster which served out the bulk of its military career with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps (as R5D-4 BuNo.90414), the BAHF’s new charge actually has a substantial Berlin Airlift pedigree. Indeed 43-17228 made numerous resupply missions into the beleaguered city from its various home bases in West Germany between October 1948 and the end of the crisis in May, 1949. The aircraft has an interesting history, as you will see below…

C-54D-15 43-17228: Manufactured by Douglas Aircraft in Chicago Illinois and delivered to the USAAF on 6 September, 1945.
  • Sep 1945 – To 1103rd AAF Base Unit (Caribbean Division, Air Transport Command), Morrison AAF, FL
  • May 1946 – To 1377th AAF Base Unit (Atlantic Division, ATC), Westover AAF, MA
  • Jun 1948 – To 520th Air Transport Group (ATC). Westover AFB, MA
  • Oct 1948 – To 61st Troop Carrier (Heavy) Group (Military Air Transport Service), Rhein Main AB, West Germany (deployments to Kelly AFB, TX and Westover AFB)
  • Jul 1949 – To 513th Troop Carrier (H) Group (MATS), Rhein Main AB (deployments to Celle AB West Germany and Westover AFB)
  • Sep 1949 – To 62nd Troop Carrier (H) Group (MATS), McChord AFB, WA (deployment to Kelly AFB)
  • Feb 1951 – To 8th Troop Carrier (H) Squadron (MATS), McChord AFB
  • Jun 1951 – To 14th, Troop Carrier (H) Squadron (MATS), McChord AFB
  • Oct 1951 – To 61st Troop Carrier (H) Group (Far East Air Forces), Asbiya AB Japan
  • Jul 1952 – To 1600th Air Transport (Medium) Group (MATS), Westover AFB (deployments to Lajes AB Azores)
  • Apr 1953 – To 42nd Air Transport (M) Squadron (MATS), Andrews AFB, MD
  • Jan 1954 – To 41st Air Transport (M) Squadron (MATS), Charleston AFB, SC (deployment to Wheelus AB Libya)
  • Sep 1954 – To 33rd Air Transport (M) Squadron (MA TS), McCbord AFB
  • May 1955 – To 57th Air Transport (M) Squadron (MATS), Kelly AFB
  • Nov 1956 – To 1700th Air Transport (M) Group (MATS), Kelly AFB (deployment to Lajes AB)
  • Feb 1957 – To 328th Fighter Group (Air Defense Command), Richards-Gebaur AFB, MO
  • Nov 1959 – To 29th Air Division (ADC), Malmstrom AFB, MT
  • Feb 1961 – To 4642nd Support Squadron (ADC), Malmstrom AFB
  • Jun 1961 – To 328th Fighter Wing (ADC), Richards-Gebaur AFB
  • Jul 1962 – To 4614th, Consolidated Maintenance Squadron (ADC), Peterson AFB, CO
  • Apr 1963 – To 4600th Consolidated Maintenance Squadron (ADC), Peterson AFB
  • Aug 1965 – To Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center, Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ
  • Jul 1967 – Dropped from inventory by transfer to US Army, Kwajalein Missile Range, Marshall Islands
  • Jan 1978 – To Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center, Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ
  • Dec 1978 – To EMI Services Inc with new c/r N9015Q
  • Apr 1982 – To ARDCO Inc keeping c/r N9015Q
  • Jun 1983 – Certificate of airworthiness for N9015Q (C54-D, 43-17228) issued
  • by 1992 – Operated as fire service #152
  • Jan 2000 – To Ardco Inc, Tucson, AZ keeping c/r N9015Q
  • Oct 2008 – To Air Elite Corp, Benbrook, TX keeping c/r N9015Q
  • Oct 2011 – To Florida Air Transport, Opa Locka, FL keeping c/r N9015Q
  • Oct 2012 – To Jet One Express Inc, Davie, FL keeping c/r N9015Q
  • May 2014 – To Island Air Transport Llc, Middletown, DE keeping c/r N9015Q
  • Aug 2020 – To Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation (purchase agreement signing)
  • Jan 2021 – To Berlin Airlift Historial Foundation, Farmingdale, NJ keeping c/r N9015Q

Ardco C-54D 43-17228 during her service as an air tanker with Ardco. She is seen here landing at Fox Field in Lancaster, California following a borate drop on a forest fire during July, 2003. (photo by Alan Radecki via Wikimedia)

In a recent conversation with the BAHF’s Kevin Kearney, we asked him for details about their recent efforts. “The decision to replace our original C-54E (44-9144) was not an easy one. We had several experts out to South Carolina to evaluate the damage and recieved quotes from $200-300K for just the sheet metal work; that didn’t include the additional expenses for the workers, such as a shelter, which would have to be built on site and accomodations, etc. We estimated that the cost would be well into the 400’s when all was said and done. Plus, we were given a timeline of 2-3 years… This was unacceptable. We quickly realized that going ahead to repair the “Spirit” would practically, if not actually, bankrupt us. So, even though we had 26 years of our lives invested in 44-9144, the decision was inevitable.”

With the tough decision regarding 44-9144’s made, the BAHF had to find a suitable replacement – not an easy task in today’s world with just a handful of economically viable airframes available. Thankfully, they were able to work out a deal for the acquisition of 43-17228 with Loren “Lynn” Florey at Island Air Transport, negotiations which they successfully concluded in August, 2020. Their new charge was located at New Smyrna Beach Municipal Airport in Florida, where it had resided since 2014, albeit in a dormant state for much of the time. With the acquisition of 43-17228 came the inevitable frenetic endeavor to get her flying again. Quite a few of the undamaged components from 44-9144 ended up moving to the new airframe as part of this effort, including a lot of cockpit components, the propellers and even one of the horizontal stabilizers. During this process, the BAHF received considerable support from Gary Norville’s American Aero Services, which is located at New Smyrna Beach. They had permission to use the ramp outside the warbird shop to work on the C-54, not to mention free access to a considerable array of tools, which made the process much easier to handle. After considerable hard work, the team had their new C-54 taxiing again by January this year.

C-54D 43-17228, the BAHF’s newly-minted Spirit of Freedom, in the livery she wore while flying with Island Air Transport. (photo by Ralph Pettersen)

The aircraft made her first test flight under BAHF ownership on April 24th. With the C-54 now deemed ready, the team flew her up the east coast on the following day to join her predecessor in Walterboro, South Carolina. Here, volunteers began transferring some of the old Spirit of Freedom’s interior displays and fittings to the new airframe. “We are planning to not only put some of the same exhibits in but, using our experience with the old one, we are working on new improved ones in order to tell the story of the airlift,” Kearney explained.

The flight to Walterboro was technically only a ferry-flight, however, since there was still a fair amount of paperwork required for the FAA to officially provide the BAHF with a permanent letter of authorization to fly the aircraft. This was, of course, due to the serious, pandemic-related backlog at the FAA, which is understandable given all that we have been through since March, 2020. None-the-less, the delay was especially frustrating to many, as the team had hoped to stop in at Reading, Pennsylvania (where their C-97 is currently grounded) during the first weekend in June. This would have enabled them take part in the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum’s WWII Weekend on their way out to Mena, Arkansas for the airframe’s repaint at Crider Aircraft Painting (with paint donated by Akzo-Nobel).

While the delays were certainly an unfortunate stumbling block, it did allow the team to perform more work on the aircraft while she remained in Walterboro. They were finally able to leave for Arkansas in mid-August, stopping in at Greene County Airport in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania where the aircraft took part in her first official air show with the BAHF over the weekend of August 20th/21st. The aircraft was on static display for much of the weekend, but took part in a plane pull and also performed a Candy Drop (emulating the famous dropping of candy to children in West Berlin which Gail Halvorsen initiated during the Berlin Airlift). On September 9th, the C-54 finally flew to Mena, Arkansas for her long-awaited repaint into BAHF colors, emerging from the paint booth with her new livery on October 20th.

Being ready for her flight to Tennessee, the Spirit of Freedom looks magnificent in the early-morning sun on the ramp outside Crider Aircraft Painting’s facility in Mena, Arkansas. (photo by Ralph Pettersen)

Not wanting to waste the precious remaining days in the air show season, the newly-rechristened Spirit of Freedom flew to Sparta, Tennessee to take part in the Upper Cumberland Air Fair, which was a magnificent success. While they had hoped to appear at another aviation event in Shannon, Virginia this past weekend, that didn’t work out unfortunately, but they do plan on taking part in the Warbirds Over Monroe Air Show in Monroe, North Carolina this coming weekend of November 6th/7th… so plan to be there if you can!

A sparkling Spirit of Freedom sits in the open air following her repaint with Crider Aircraft Painting in Mena, Arkansas. (photo by Ralph Pettersen)

Regarding what the future holds for 44-9144, Kearney noted: “As of right now, the old airplane will be stripped of useable parts (We were lucky that the engines and propellers were not damaged). Some airframe parts and some parts that are surplus to our needs will probably make their way across the Atlantic to help our friends in England who are restoring the old Atlantic Warbirds C-54.  The remaining fuselage’s fate is uncertain at this time. There is talk that the airport would like to keep it on site as a concession or a meeting room for the CAP or something. None of that is firm. There is still a chance it could be scrapped, though that is on the bottom of our list of options. We haven’t really approached that yet, because our concentration has been on getting ‘back in business’ with the new C-54.”
Kearney then turned to the future, noting: “Our focus now that the C-54 is operational again is turned back to our one-of-a-kind Boeing C-97. There are no other C-97’s left that can be flown and we are in the process of acquiring spares for ours. We have already removed our failed #2 engine which failed between Reading and Hagerstown in 2019. There will need to be a big fundraising campaign to make this happen. The cost of this deal, as with anything in aviation, is high. We feel that we HAVE to pursue the airworthy C-97 to the end, so we are going ahead with it, but we will need the public’s support. Without it, the program will wither on the vine.”

Kearney continued his discussion regarding the BAHF’s plans: “We are also looking for a permanent home for these airplanes and the myriad of spares we possess. We have parts littered up and down the East Coast from upstate New York to Florida and all points in between. Even just some ramp space and a place to put a few containers would be better than the nomadic life we’re living now.”

Many thanks indeed to Kevin Kearney for sharing some of the details regarding the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation’s tireless efforts to celebrate the brave air crews from the Berlin Airlift. It is a noble mission, and one which has clearly engaged much passion and dedication from both the public and the organization’s volunteers. Despite their intense efforts, this endeavor could not continue without significant help from public support, so if you can please do contribute below to help keep the Spirit of Freedom alive…

Contribute to the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation, please click HERE!

For a detailed look at the initial restoration of the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation’s KC-97G Angel of Deliverance, please see our very own Greg Morehead’s marvelous article on the aircraft in Warbird Digest Issue #76.



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