Fighter Jets & Moon Rocks

Aviation History on Display in Florence

by Joey Frazier

It was quiet March 11, 1958, in Mars Bluff, except for birds singing and an airplane passing overhead. Moments later Walter Gregg, a railroad worker just home from work, heard the scream of a bomb falling near his backyard.

It was an atomic bomb. Although there was no nuclear explosion, a 35-foot crater was blasted into the earth by the TNT inside the bomb.

If you want to know more about "the bombing of Mars Bluff" and even see a B-47 Stratojet like the one that accidentally dropped the bomb in Walter Gregg's yard, visit the Florence Air and Missile Museum near the Florence Regional Airport. You can find many exciting artifacts on loan from the Navy, Air Force, Army, NASA and even the Smithsonian Institution.

Besides the airplanes, there is a Titan ballistic missile, a moon rock from an Apollo mission, command consoles from NASA, a genuine Mercury pressure suit, two fighter trainers (one a jet and the other a prop T-28 simulator from World War II) and much more. Museum director Al Stein said the T-28 is being repaired so visitors can sit in it and see what student pilots experienced as they learned to fly war planes of the era.

On the flight line, a C-97 Stratofreighter and a B-47 Stratojet dwarf jet fighters like the F-102A Delta Dagger or the F-104B Starfighter. The planes are from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Stein said World War I is not represented because those aircraft now are very hard to find and acquire. Many of the planes have been used in actual combat; others were used by military air show teams like the Blue Angels. Each display has a plaque with a full description of the aircraft, its top speed and altitude and the type of missions it flew.

You easily can spend a half day or more at the museum if you take the time to investigate each plane. As you inspect the aircraft, you can hear planes taking off and landing at the Florence Regional Airport just behind the museum, creating a feeling that the displays themselves are ready to roll off the flight line and soar away on dangerous adventures. In fact, Stein in-sists some of the displays still can be restored to flight condition.

Unfortunately, you cannot sit inside the planes and helicopters. Previously, the cockpits were left open for close inspection, but were not closed during inclement weather. Hopefully, when there is money, the interiors will be restored.

A display of posters and memorabilia is being prepared to honor Vietnam vets, MIAs and POWs.

The museum now is 29 years old. Aside from the weathered look of the aircraft after a quarter century of aging, the facility had been falling into disrepair, according to Stein.

Stein said in 1991 the County of Florence labeled the museum a junkyard. At that time, the grass went uncut, paint was peeling and falling from the planes, the interiors of the aircraft were deteriorating from exposure to the weather and the tires were flat on the planes and helicopters. The museum was abandoned for nine months until the current board of directors could take action to save the planes from a real salvage yard.

The county government and the Florence Regional Airport (they own the land) agreed to give the new directors a chance to improve the facility, but the threat of shutting it down loomed over their heads. Two years and lots of hard work later, the now-nonprofit organization has a lease on the site and agreements from various branches of the military to leave the aircraft on display in Florence.

Volunteers help keep the three-and-a-half acres of grass cut - often bringing their own gas. Stein realizes without the help of these dedicated volunteers, almost no maintenance would be possible for the building or the displays. As funding becomes available, the aircraft are being repaired.

Some visitors ask, "Why don't you just paint the planes?" It seems a simple matter, but for Stein it's a very frustrating question. He explained that it takes a lot money to repair the aircraft. "It's more than just a coat of paint. It has to be stripped, then the hull has to be preserved with the proper primer - and you just don't roll on house latex."

Stein has big plans for the museum, but it takes money to make dreams become realities. Although the museum is a nonprofit organization, it receives no funding from state or local government. The museum is supporting itself on gate admission and donations.

"This place can sustain itself," Stein said, "but it does not bring in enough to restore the aircraft." He is further frustrated because the museum has applied for grants and tax accommodation dollars to execute renovations and restorations, but so far it has been turned down.

"It takes patience and we have some very dedicated volunteers, but that's not to say that at times they don't get discouraged. Last year we applied to the County of Florence for a grant to re-pair our restrooms, and we were turned down."

In 1993, the museum hosted 7,000 visitors, but the only working restroom facility was a port-o-toilet. Stein said it takes $2,800 a month just to keep the doors open.

He hopes the facility gets some monetary relief next year. Air-conditioners need repair, and additional advertising dollars could help attract more tourists.

Stein also has a vision of moving the entire museum to a new location near an I-95 exit for better visibility, but that may be a long way off, without grant money.

While local politics may not be favoring the museum, the organization recently got a boost from the military. It was named an official World War II 50th Anniversary Commemorative Community Museum. That's a distinction of which Stein and the board of directors are very proud.

The Florence Air and Missile Museum is located at 2204 E. Palmetto Street (U.S. Highway 301), Florence, SC 29506. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children, $4 for seniors or military. Donations can be mailed to Treasurer Joseph D. Carson at the above address. For more information, call the museum at (803) 665-5118.

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