- Associated Press - Monday, May 8, 2017

BEAVER FALLS, Pa. (AP) - Pat Findlay got hooked on aviation in high school and served as an engine mechanic and crew chief with the 911th Airlift Wing for more than 36 years.

Jack McMahon, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, was a fighter pilot who flew in Operation Desert Shield.

McMahon’s wife, Donna, had two uncles who fought during World War II, and a high school classmate of hers was one of the first U.S. soldiers to die in Laos during the Vietnam War.

Now, in their retirement years, the Washington County residents volunteer at least a day or two every week in a large hangar at Beaver County Airport in Beaver Falls, fixing up vintage aircraft at the Air Heritage Museum.

They are among a group of about 20 men and women who repair the planes, operate the airplane museum’s exhibits and travel to air shows to display Thunder Pig, a renovated C-123 military cargo plane that was built in 1956 and used stateside until 1981, when it was placed in a desert storage facility in Arizona.

“I’ve been coming up here for the past few years since I retired, it’s a lot of fun. It brings back a lot of memories, and it keeps a little bit of the history of what we worked on alive,” said Findlay, of North Strabane Township. “We just like to do this.”

The museum is open to the public most days of the week. Admission is free.

Inside, about a dozen planes - primarily military planes that date from the 1930s through the 1950s - sit in various states of restoration, including some that have been fully restored.

But the museum’s biggest attraction is the Thunder Pig, a hulking plane that is the only aircraft of its kind still flying (at just over 75 feet long, its tail can’t fit inside the hangar, and its wingtips clear the hangar door by only two inches on each side).

About 300 of the C-123s built saw combat in Vietnam, where they ferried troops and equipment.

Volunteers fly the Thunder Pig to about eight or nine air shows each year, and the plane will be on display at the 2017 Wings over Pittsburgh Air Show May 13 and 14. That event is hosted by the 911th Airlift Wing.

Jack McMahon, of Peters Township, said the volunteers enjoy talking to people who walk through Thunder Pig at the air shows, and especially like answering questions from children and having conversations with veterans, who often share stories - sometimes emotional - about their experiences on the C-123 in Vietnam.

“When we go to air shows today, where there are a lot of Vietnam veterans - and almost anybody who was in Vietnam somewhere along the line probably rode in one of these - you can’t believe the stories we get when they get aboard this,” said McMahon. “They seem drawn to it. It’s like it’s almost therapeutic for them to talk about being on the airplane and what they did. It’s just amazing to listen to them and their stories.”

Thunder Pig has appeared in more than just air shows. The plane has been featured in movies, including “Die Hard 2,” ”Con Air,” ”Air America” and the soon-to-be-released “Mena,” starring Tom Cruise.

On a recent weekday, about a dozen volunteers trickled into the hangar, poured hot coffee, ate doughnuts and exchanged good-natured jabs as they discussed the group’s recent efforts to fix a fuel leak and install a carburetor in Thunder Pig in order to prepare her for annual inspection.

The volunteers have squirreled away spare parts they’ve gotten from other C-123s, but finding components and keeping Thunder Pig flying sometimes proves to be a difficult task.

“We face a lot of challenges, and it takes a lot to keep this thing going. The older the plane gets, the more difficult it gets,” said McMahon.

The carburetor, for example, was sent recently to Texas for an overhaul, which cost $5,000, but two weeks before the air show, the engine still wasn’t running smoothly.

Air Heritage Inc. relies on donations and fundraisers to support the museum and plane repairs.

Donna McMahon said the volunteers, some in their 80s and 90s, want to help promote an interest in the history of military planes and those who built them and flew them.

“Volunteering here is a way to promote the history and to honor the men and women who have sacrificed so much,” said Donna McMahon. “It’s mainly retired people who keep this running, and we’d be happy to welcome the next generation.”





Information from: Observer-Reporter, https://www.observer-reporter.com

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