‘Spares’ plane once transported Eisenhower

by marlys good

The YouTube story about the very first Air Force One being unknowingly purchased by Greybull’s favorite and most notable pilot, Mel Christler, gets more interesting with information included in an Internet article on Christler Flying Service.

According to Christler he got a call in 1980 from Robert Mikesh, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, asking him if he was aware that his “spares” airplane, one of five he had purchased in 1970 and was now stored in Tucson, Ariz., was Columbine II, Dwight Eisenhower’s first presidential Constellation.

By this time, however, the airplane’s most useful parts had been donated to its working sisters.

Mel felt terrible about what had happened to the historic aircraft and set out to remedy the situation.

In 1985 Christler and his son, Lockie, attended the Globe Air auction in Mesa and bid $5,000 for Columbine II’s sistership. The plan was to ferry the sister ship to Ryan Field in Tucson and use its parts to restore Columbine II.

In 1989 the restoration of Columbine II began. It was completed in April 1990 and toured the United State in 1990 and 1991.

Christler and his partner Harry Oliver, integral to the restoration, thought the perfect home for the aircraft was the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, but little interest was expressed by the museum.

A note of interest was that the “sistership” purchased by Christler for the restoration was originally named “Dewdrop” and was to be presidential-hopeful Dewey’s presidential airplane. When Harry Truman won the 1948 election he chose a DC-/VC-118 as his airplane. The name Dewdrop was removed from the “Connie,” and it was assigned to the USAF’s VIP squadron at National Airport in Washington, D.C. It was scrapped at Ryan Field in January 2002.

Of the five planes purchased by Christler in 1970, Columbine and two others survive.

One of the “survivors” was restored by the Dutch Aviodome Museum, repainted in late 1940s KLM colors at the paint facility at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, with plans of flying it on the European airshow circuit.

As noted in the YouTube video, that first Air Force I lays forgotten and decaying in the desert.

Christler, who died in 2005, had an avid interest and knack for flying since he was a young boy. Born in Canada, his family moved to Monroe, Mich., when Mel was just an infant, and to Wyoming, where they purchased the Castle Rock Ranch up South Fork above Cody when Mel was 13 years old.

He received his commercial flying license and instructor’s rating from the CAA in the mid ‘30s; was an instructor in the Civilian Pilot Training program, trained Army Cadets; served in the Air Transport command, including a year of flying modified B2 gasoline tankers over the hump between China, Burma and India.

He returned to Wyoming after the war and opened a fixed base operation in Greybull. He was one of the first to introduce large aircraft in aerial application and firefighting efforts.

In 1961 he sold the business and moved to Thermopolis and operated the first corporate jet aircraft in Wyoming for Empire State Oil.

He and his wife Frances owned and operated three businesses: Big Horn Flying Service, Christler and Avery Aviation, Christler Flying Service; performed aerial application, fish planting, slurry bombing, U.S. Forest Service smoke jumping and flight instruction. He pioneered aerial pipeline patrol, which was previously done on foot.

In 1999 he was inducted into the Wyoming Aviation Hall of Fame.