I am continually amazed at the range of subjects that Richard Welling sketched in his long career. While best known for his drawings of Hartford’s changing skyline through the years, Richard also loved railroads and vessels of all types, as I have blogged about in the past. This of course now brings us to another type of vehicle—aircraft.Richard sketched Cessnas and Pipers that could be found at many small Connecticut airports, as well as jetliners that were seen at Bradley International Airport (or “Bradley Field”, as it was called). One of the joys for him was undoubtedly what I always called the “Bradley Air Museum” (officially now the “New England Air Museum”, and a fabulous place to visit!), with its array of vintage civilian and military aircraft that lined the tarmac on the east side of the airport.
Amid the museum’s collection of aircraft, it was hard to miss the Douglas C-124C “Globemaster” transport, whose tail towered over just about everything else at the museum, including the big hanger. The U. S. Air Force’s largest transport in the 1950s, this four-engine monster could carry tanks, bulldozers, even tractor-trailers much like today’s C-5 and C-17 transports. During the 1950s these transports were familiar sights at Bradley, where an aircraft maintenance firm performed contract repair services for the Air Force. Seeing one of those lumbering behemoths flying over my house while on final approach to Runway 24 was memorable for a kid like me. The big Pratt & Whitney piston engines just oozed a sense of raw power! This plane, with its prominent bulbous nose radar (humorous looking to a 10-year-old, trust me), clearly attracted Richard Welling as well, based on an ink sketch he drew during a 1971 visit to the museum. Like me, he must have wondered how something so big could actually fly.
When he sketched the C-124 he also included a smaller cousin, the twin engine C-119 transport, affectionately called the “Flying Boxcar” due to its square fuselage shape. Turns out that this type of aircraft also had a Bradley connection, as an Air Force Reserve squadron flying these had been based at the airport from 1958 to 1966. Again, another familiar sight to a youngster living under the main runway’s flight path.
Both of these aircraft are gone now, both from the Air Force inventory (replaced by jet-powered transports) and from the museum. In early October 1979 a powerful tornado rated as an EF-4 raked the airport and scored a direct hit on the museum and its collection, before continuing through Windsor Locks where it claimed several lives. (See my blog of July 25 for more about tornadoes in CT.) An aerial photo taken after the storm shows a massive debris field where the museum had stood, with pieces (and I do mean pieces) of aircraft scattered across acres of field and taxiway. So how strong was the storm? Well, the gigantic C-124 was literally picked up, flipped over, and sheared into chunks by the tornado, one of dozens of aircraft destroyed or damaged. The Flying Boxcar fared no better, being neatly bisected before having its wings clipped.
I suspect Richard Welling felt the same sense of disbelief and loss that I did in the storm’s aftermath, particularly for the families that lost loved ones, homes, and livelihoods. And also for the loss of objects that helped tell the compelling story of aviation. Despite the catastrophic damage the museum rose from the debris, relocated to the opposite side of the airport, and today is among the state’s top tourist attractions. Unfortunately they were unable to replace either the Globemaster (only 9 examples remain) or the Flying Boxcar that for years called Bradley home.