October 18, 2012

City of Yuma plane finds final resting place in public’s eye

Story and photo by Cpl. Aaron Diamant
Desert Warrior Staff
Yumans crowd around the City of Yuma airplane, now on display in Yuma City Hall’s entryway, Oct. 10. The plane represents decades of friendship between the civilian and military communities.

In 1949, Yuma appeared to be heading to its’ deathbed. The war was over and the military had shut down the air base. A mass exodus ensued, threatening an end to the city on the banks of the Colorado River.

Four young men came up with an idea to put Yuma back on the map and into the public’s eyes once again. At the time, the cool thing to do was set endurance flight world records. If they could do it in stormy Northern California, why couldn’t they do it in the sunniest city on Earth?

Ray Smucker, Horace Griffen and pilots Bob Woodhouse and Woody Jongeward set out to show the world, and specifically the Department of Defense, Yuma had perfect flying weather 365 days a year. The best way for them to do it; break the world record for endurance flight.

The two pilots, aided by ground crews who passed them food and fuel while still in the air, officially broke the record with 1,124 hours of continuous flight when they eventually landed on Oct. 10, 1949.

“Aviation changed in this community because of this airplane and these men,” said Ricky Rinehart, Yuma City Operations Administrator.

The best part of the flight, their plan worked. They got the attention of the DoD, who reopened the airfield as Vincent Air Force Base, arguably saving the City of Yuma from certain death. The Air Force base was taken over by the Marine Corps in the 1960s, becoming what is now Marine Corps Air Station Yuma.

“It’s fair to say that without Bob and Woody, I, and several thousand Marines, Soldiers and Sailors before me, wouldn’t have been able to know of this great city,” said Col. Robert Kuckuk, MCAS Yuma’s commanding officer, during the dedication celebration, Oct. 10.

After the historic flight, the plane was sold, but was bought back from a private owner and restored to its original condition. The problem, there was no place to put it, until Mayor Alan Krieger decided to put it in City Hall.

“I hope is that just one child who comes in here and sees this plane is inspired by its story,” said Krieger.

Many men and women made the restoration and display of the historic plane possible, showing the dedication this city has to its history, and paid homage to the military presence in the city, with Kuckuk and Army Col. Reed Young, Yuma Proving Grounds commanding officer, as guest speakers at the dedication ceremony.

“All services have served here, as well as international allied nations,” Kuckuk told the large crowd. “There’s not a Marine aviator today who hasn’t, or who won’t soon train in Yuma. There truly is no better place to fly and or train than Yuma.”

To illustrate that point, two HH-1N Huey helicopters from MCAS Yuma’s Search and Rescue section flew over the ceremony, showing the military did return and is here to stay.

One special guest in attendance was Horace Griffen, who provided and drove the 1949 Buick convertible that was used to resupply the airplane during the flight. Griffen drove the car every morning during the flight, as another crew member passed food and fuel up to the low-flying plane as they sped down the closed runway of the abandoned air field.

“I’m glad to be here,” said Griffen, “But literally, at 91, I’m glad to be here any day!” he added with a smile.

To illustrate the dedication he and the other members of the endurance flight crew had, Griffen’s daughter Judy was born during the time the flight was happening. “But I never missed a run,” Griffen beamed.

With the airplane finding its final touchdown in the entryway of City Hall, it is sure to inspire wonder and amazement, and perhaps inspire someone else to dream big and make it happen.

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