Rare Old Bird Will Fly Once More -- Happy Partners Sell Huge Plane They Rescued

McMINNVILLE, Ore. - As airplanes go, it is big and ungainly and slow, more of a pelican than a swallow.

Certainly not the sort of craft to set the pulses pounding or to make an aviation buff think of speed and style and loop-the-loops.

But don't tell that to Jerry Marshall and Glen Clevenger. The two young flying enthusiasts are just winding up 10 heady months as the owners of an ancient KC-97, an impossibly large airplane that neither of them is certified to fly.

They're still smitten with the old bird, which is one of the last of its kind. Around the world, only a dozen or so are still flying.

And while Clevenger and Marshall never got the big relic off the ground themselves, they know that it will fly again - and that they've saved its aging aluminum flanks from being butchered at the scrap yard.

``We couldn't stand the thought of it being made into beer cans,'' Jerry Marshall said. ``That was the biggest reason we got involved. It deserved something better than that.''

Marshall, 33, is manager of the Cottage Grove Airport. Clevenger, 34, is a mechanic for the Pleasant Hill School District. They are flying buddies. Their tastes and skills run to the sort of small planes found around local fields.

Nothing in that background quite prepared them for leaping into ownership of a 40-ton, four-engine behemoth that once was one of the largest airplanes on Earth. They were like weekend sailors who'd acquired an ocean liner.

Over a long winter of work, the partners fathomed some of the old plane's mysteries, got its mammoth engines running again and, most important, found a buyer.

Sometime over the next few months, the big plane will lift off from McMinnville and head for Greybull, Wyo. It's destined to become either a museum piece or a forest-fire bomber.

The KC-97, a Boeing plane, was built for the U.S. Air Force from 1947 to 1953. Its civilian counterpart was the Boeing Stratoliner, which hauled passengers all over the world in the tourism explosion that began after World War II.

The airliner version was the largest civilian plane of its era. Only a couple of military planes were larger.

In either the civilian or military edition, the Boeing plane was equipped with the largest piston engines ever installed on an aircraft. The plane flew at 250 mph and cruised at 15,000 feet.

The military version was most commonly used as an airborne gas station. Newspapers and magazines of the 1950s commonly ran pictures of KC-97s doing airborne refueling of monster jets such as the B-47 and the B-52.

The military crammed some KC-97s with radio gear and used them for airborne command posts that were intended to keep communications functioning in the event of nuclear war.

Like many other surplus aircraft, this old KC-97 had gone to a military boneyard in Arizona decades ago. An Arizona corporation bought it in 1985 and put it back in flying condition.

Then it was purchased by a group of McMinnville businessmen, who had it delivered to Oregon. At the McMinnville Airport they threw up a modern, two-story restaurant building and attached the plane to it as a dining room. The dining area was on the plane's main deck, and visitors were permitted to tour the cockpit.

The plane was never expected to fly again.

But it was the Flight 97 Restaurant itself that never really took off. It closed after a year or so of operation. In 1988, the restaurant and the airplane went on the auction block.

``The auction was mostly restaurant people,'' Marshall said. ``The high bid for the airplane was only $12,500. They wouldn't let it go for that. Later, they got an offer of $50,000 from someone who wanted to scrap it out. That was the scrap value. But the owners cared about the plane too much to let that happen.''

Marshall and Clevenger got into the act last October. They negotiated a purchase for a price that they describe as more than the auction bid but less than the scrap bid.

They separated the plane from the building and stripped out the restaurant modifications inside. They located manuals for the aircraft and worked weekend after weekend. They managed to get the engines running again and to correct things that had been damaged or disconnected during the restaurant conversion.

``A lot of the small aircraft stuff we knew applied to this one,'' Clevenger said. ``It's actually not as complex as you might think - just big. . . . It's a beautiful relic.''