By VICKI BROWN
After being in Walterboro on a nearly two-year hiatus, the “Spirit of Freedom” museum airplane flew out of the Lowcountry Regional Airport with little fanfare on Thursday, August 18th at 3:35 p.m., ready to tour.
The C-54-E “Spirit of Freedom” plane was replaced after it was destroyed in the April 13, 2020 tornadoes. The huge Boeing had been touring the world for 27 years as a flying museum, telling the story of the Berlin Airlift.
The Berlin Airlift occurred on June 24, 1948, near West Berlin, Germany. The Soviets had occupied and blockaded all roads leading to and from the city after WWII, hoping to starve the people out. Unable to get supplies to 2 million needy people, President Truman had planes airlift food, medical supplies, clean water and clothes. The supplies were carried by over 200,000 airplanes that landed 24 hours a day, seven days a week for almost a year. Over 1,500,000 tons of supplies were sent.
The original “Spirit of Freedom” plane was filled with relics and information about this historical event, but after airshows were cancelled because of the pandemic, the Berlin Historical Foundation’s (BHF) flying museum had to be parked somewhere.
The Lowcountry Regional Airport commission allowed the plane to rest in Walterboro until the pandemic was over. While the historic plane was waiting out the pandemic, the 2020 tornadoes struck. During the storm, the F1 tornado hit the airport and the “Spirit of Freedom” became airborne for a moment, causing the plane to slam into the metal façade of a hangar, impaling a wing and engine, and causing permanent damage.
There was no hope to repair it, even if parts could be found.
Chopp said he was concerned that the museum would have to close for good, but another plane was found in New Smyrna Beach, Florida…a one in a million occurrence. It took over six months to get the newer plane ready to fly with Chopp, a Vietnam War aircraft mechanic, making dozens of trips from his home in New Jersey to Florida to work on it during the pandemic year. He would stop in Walterboro, remove plane parts and continue to Florida and put the parts on the new plane.
For almost a year, the two old planes have sat facing each other while museum pieces and relics were being transferred from the old C-54-E to the newer model C-54-D.
“It is amazing that in one year I would be standing in another plane that replaces the damaged one, and getting ready to continue the museum that commemorates those who fought in World War II, and the history of the Berlin Airlift,” said Chopp.
“We have been very lucky to have help from airport manager Tommy Rowe and the Airport Commission in allowing us to park here. We are a non-profit and the only flying museum in the entire world,” he said.
“I am grateful to the airport commission, airport personnel, and the people of Walterboro who have allowed the plane to rest at LRA as we removed parts and propellers from the old plane, and put them on the newer one.”
The new “Spirit of Freedom” with its crew of Tim Chopp, Jason Pence, and Don Bennett took off with very little fanfare ready to resume traveling the world. The crew said they are hoping to continue to tell the story and show relics from an important time in history…the Berlin Airlift.