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By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN â€“ As a row of veteran fliers, family members and members of the Quonset Air Museum lined a chain-link fence in front of the nearby Quonset State Airport on Saturday, a single-engine plane with a checkerboard nose, stars on its wings and the word NAVY on its side blasted into action.
First there was a cloud of oily smoke and then the sound of a cement mixer on steroids as the plane came to life. But it was all perfume and music to those gathered to welcome home the A-1E Skyraider that had served the Naval Air Station at Quonset Point in the late 1960s before taking on a role during the Vietnam War.
According to Bob Collings, who started the Collings Foundation in Stow, Mass. in 1977 â€“ â€śan educational foundation of living history [and a place to] learn about our heritage and honor our veteransâ€ť â€“ an anonymous donor from Oklahoma offered him the plane about six weeks ago.
The foundation, which owns 22 aircraft, 85 antique cars and â€śnumerous transportation artifactsâ€ť that are exhibited in Massachusetts and Texas, believes in putting its collection to good use. Its four themed open house special events are the â€śWings and Wheelsâ€ť show, the â€śRace of the Century,â€ť a World War II â€śBattle for the Airfieldâ€ť with 250 re-enactors and the â€śWings of Freedom Tourâ€ť featuring a P-51 Mustang, a B-17 Flying Fortress and a B-24 Liberator.
Collings says the â€śWings of Freedom Tourâ€ť is seen by â€śseveral million peopleâ€ť a year at venues throughout the country.
Committed to â€śexciting and motivatingâ€ť people through the preservation of iconic planes, he readily accepted the Skyraider. Because the aircraft is so rare â€“ one of only four A-1E Skyraiders in the world that still flies â€“ Collings wanted to place it near an airport so it could be used and appreciated.
According to Air Museum president David Stecker, the foundation approached him about displaying the Skyraider at Quonset and, while he was grateful for the thought, he knew the all-volunteer, donation-driven enterprise couldnâ€™t afford to haul the plane up from Florida where Collings has its maintenance center.
He recalls being asked, â€śHow about if we fly it in for you?â€ť
The Skyraider, which will be owned by the foundation but on permanent loan to the museum, will be featured during this weekendâ€™s Rhode Island National Guard Open House and Air Show along with aerobatic pilots such as Sean D. Tucker, Michael Goulian and Lt. Col. John Klatt.
The show begins on Saturday and Sunday at 10 a.m. and also includes â€“ among numerous military and civilian participants â€“ the U.S. Army Special Operations parachute jump team the Black Daggers, the U.S. Air Force Thunderbird and the massive four-engine C-130J Super Hercules, used in troop transport, aerial refueling, airborne assault and other missions.
The Skyraider, which had been expected to fly in on Saturday actually arrived mid-week, giving a crew time to haul it to the air museum, clean it up and haul it back to the airport. After this weekendâ€™s show it will occupy the first spot in the hangar, making it easier to take it out for demonstrations and shows in other locations.
Built as an Ad-5 in 1951, the Skyraider was assigned to four aircraft carriers including the USS Wasp, Hornet and Intrepid. After being mothballed, it was refitted as an A-1E for air support and escort duty during Vietnam. After retirement, it went to a private owner, was restored and has passed through a number of hands.
At Saturdayâ€™s welcoming event, Rob Collings, Bobâ€™s son and the planeâ€™s pilot, loaded his mother, wife and two last-minute passengers â€“ veteran aviators who had flown the plane during its heyday â€“ and prepared to do a fly-over.
As a handful of small, private planes were directed by the towerâ€™s air traffic controller whose voice could clearly be heard outside, the vintage plane made its way to the far end of the runway. And then the strangely thrilling instruction was heard: â€śSkyraider, you are cleared for takeoff.â€ť
The 61-year-old craft made a running start and, just in front of the crowd along the fence, began to climb. After it had circled the airport in broad loops, the Skyraider flew over the gathering and tipped its wings.
Gates to the air show will open at 9 a.m. Flying is scheduled to end at 4:30 p.m.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.