Friday, September 29, 2017

Show Low Regional Airport (KSOW), Navajo County, Arizona: History from the sky

SHOW LOW — A little piece of world history practically dropped out of the sky earlier this summer and landed squarely on the tarmac at Show Low Regional Airport.

“Landed” is the operative word, here.

Shortly after taking off in early July from Yuma, the Flabob Express, a 1940s-era DC-3/C-47 fixed-wing propeller-driven showpiece airliner with a ton of history embedded in its legacy, began experiencing problems with its right engine, according to Show Low Regional Airport Manager Thomas Bahr.

“The plane was on its way to an air show in New York when its right engine started having problems and began smoking,” Bahr said. “Show Low was one of the closer airports, so they landed here. It was an emergency.”

Trailing smoke as its cruised over the White Mountains, the Flabob Express safely landed at the Show Low airport.

“Our guys went out with fire extinguishers to make sure it didn’t catch fire, which it didn’t – luckily,” Bahr said. “It could have been a lot worse.”

For his part, Bahr was learning the ropes of his new job as the airport’s manager when the incident occurred.

“I had only been here a few days, at most,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t see it land. It would have been kind of cool to see the airplane trailing smoke and landing. I got (to the landing spot) right after it landed.”

With four experienced pilots on board possessing training in mechanics, Bahr said the foursome decided to “take the engine apart” to repair what they thought was a damaged piston. That was the plan until metal shavings were discovered in the plane’s oil and throughout the internal structure of the right engine. The metal shavings were a result of an explosion of one of the engine’s 14 cylinders.

“The plane has been sitting here (in Show Low) ever since,” Bahr said.


The Flabob Express was manufactured in 1943 in Long Beach, Calif., and delivered to the Army Air Force, which then transferred it to British Royal Air Force No 24 Squadron. The mission of this particular squadron, according to a historical fact sheet, was VIP transport for the royal family and leaders of state, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Previous owners, in fact, have noted that the Flabob Express’ flight log books carried the names of Churchill and Princess Margaret among its many passengers.

About midway through 1943, the Flabob Express was ferried by boat to India, where it served Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, a World War II British general known to have twice fought Nazi Germany Gen. Erwin Rommell’s troops to a standstill in North Africa.

After serving a five-year stint in the Pakistani Air Force, the Flabob Express was retired from military service and purchased by several U.S. and Canadian individuals and companies. It served as an executive transport and several other functions for private industry.

From 1971-76, the plane “sat derelict” on an airport ramp in Winnipeg, Alberta, Canada. In 1984, it was again purchased, this time by a Canadian airline service where it was a regional carrier in Northwest Canada.

In 1993, the Flabob Express, nicknamed “Gooney Bird” for its versatility and ruggedness, was imported to the U.S. to Flabob Airport near Riverside, Calif., where it earned its current name and began its “third career” as a showpiece at air shows across the country.

Back to Riverside

Shortly before noon Wednesday, the Flabob Express took to the air for the first time in the two-plus months since it landed at Show Low Regional Airport. Pilots sent from the plane’s home base in Riverside arrived in Show Low and took the Express for a test flight above the surrounding area. There were no reported issues.

Once the Express returned to the airport, the pilots, mechanics and grounds crew prepped it for its first extended journey back to Riverside.

Pilot Joe Fisher said he was confident the plane would be back to its usual working order.

“We had to send some mechanics up, pull the engine off and overhaul it,” he said. “The mechanics got it running (Tuesday night), so here we are to take it home.”

After a quick refuel and other pre-flight checks, the Flabob Express’ right engine started first, then the left. Despite a burst of smoke and flame from that right propeller, it turned toward the taxiway en route to the northern-most runway. After a few moments, the Express’ engines roared to capacity and lifted off toward the West Coast.

Before it left the area entirely, the Express made one last flyby over Show Low Regional Airport before climbing into the sky and out of sight.

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