Saturday, November 26, 2016

Beaumont man's jet lands in Volo Museum collection

When Beaumont businessman William "Hat" Watkins, Jr. bought a 60-year-old Fouga CM-170 Magister French military fighter jet in 1997 at the age of 62, he didn't tell his family. Not even his wife.

He knew they'd be upset, said Lorraine Watkins Davenport, Watkins' daughter.

The family didn't learn about the jet until the next year, when Watkins was in a minor plane accident involving a different aircraft, said Davenport.

"His friend said, 'That's going to delay you from that jet,'" said Davenport. "That's when we found out."

When Watkins passed away in 2012 at 76, Davenport said the family was conflicted about what to do with the jet.

It sat in storage at the Jack Brooks Regional Airport until last summer, when Davenport discovered the Volo Auto Museum in Volo, Illinois, while watching an episode of "Small Town, Big Deal." The museum specializes in rare and unique cars.

Davenport said she consulted with her family, and they decided to donate her dad's jet.

"There are some things that are worth much more than money," said Davenport. "We were much more comfortable with this."

Davenport said her father was the co-owner of Batesville, Mississippi-based ACI Building Systems, Inc., which required him to travel frequently.

"He was impatient and didn't want to go to the airport," she said. "He started learning how to fly and fell in love with it."

Stig Lunde, a pilot who used to fly with Watkins, said Watkins spotted the jet in a "Trade-a-Plane" magazine. A few days later, they traveled to New York to check it out. Watkins bought it.

"She was a beautiful bird, and we fell in love right away," said Lunde.

Lunde said they flew the jet to Batesville several times. But he said they stopped because the jet - which could reach a maximum speed of 440 miles per hour - burned through fuel so quickly that they had to stop in Louisiana each way. After that, he said, they would fly the plane around the region occasionally, and it spent most of the time in the hangar.

Brian Grams, director of the Volo Auto Museum, said the two-seat French military jet with twin engines was built in the late 1950s. Fewer than 1,000 were made, he said.

The jet will join the Volo Museum's collection of classic and unique cars, including three Batmobiles and a Scooby Doo van, and two other aircraft - a Huey helicopter from the Vietnam War-era and a replica of a Harrier jet from the 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger film "True Lies."

Grams said the biggest challenge was figuring out how to move the jet cross-country. He said it took him three weeks to locate DeLand Barnstormers, a Florida-based business that specializes in dismantling and transporting planes. He then had to wait two months for an opening in their schedule.

"If you've got a car, I know how to get it no matter where you are in the world, no matter if you're in the desert. But a plane is another thing," Grams said.

Deland Barnstormers broke the jet down into five pieces - a body, two wings and two rear panels. It arrived at the museum at the end of October.

Grams said the jet will go on display in a few months, after the museum builds a structure for it. The museum plans to put a plaque next to it to share Watkins' story and his love of the jet.

"We are so excited that our father's jet is going to be seem by so many," Davenport said. "He loved that jet."


No comments: