The Pima Air & Space Museum near Tucson, Arizona is always on the go – so much so that it’s hard to keep track of the myriad new aircraft which they regularly add to their collection, let alone the examples which they have under restoration. Indeed, there is a regular rotation of airframes which pass through the restoration workshops at Pima, some involving newly arrived airframes, while others are long-term residents in need of refurbishment. The arid climate near Tucson is perfect for extended periods of outdoor display for the bulk of the museum’s less-fragile exhibits. However, bleaching under the hot Arizona sun and abrasions from occasional sandstorms can undermine even the most carefully applied paint scheme, so it’s not surprising that each outdoor exhibit needs a little ‘spar treatment’ in the restoration shop from time-to-time.
One of the more unusual exhibits which recently underwent refurbishment is former U.S. Army Sikorsky VH-34C Chocktaw 57-1684 which served for a period as a VIP transport for Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. This particular Chocktaw rolled off the Sikorsky production line in Stratford, Connecticut towards the end of 1957 as a standard H-34A-SI (c/n 58-0790) for the U.S. Army, which took delivery of the airframe on January 31, 1958. She underwent conversion into a VH-34C executive transport by February 1960, arriving soon after with the U.S. Army’s Executive Flight Detachment at Fort Belvoir, just outside Washington, D.C. in Fairfax County, Virginia. Helicopters from this unit provided regional mobility for military and government top brass at that time. The senior government officials which the flight then served also included the U.S. President and his immediate entourage, although the U.S. Marine Corps has performed such presidential rotary wing duties exclusively since the end of 1964.
Following her days serving presidents, VH-34C 57-1684 continued operating for the rest of the decade until she retired to what was then known as the Military Aircraft Storage and Disposal Center (MASDC) at Davis-Monthan AFB on October 24th, 1972. She lingered there in stasis until the Pima Air & Space Museum acquired her on loan (from the U.S.Navy) in February, 1977. Of course this move involved just a short journey across the street from the ‘Boneyard’ at Davis-Monthan to the museum’s facility. The museum had far fewer resources (and exhibits) at that time, of course, having only just opened to the public in the previous year. As a result, it took some time before the Chocktaw received a proper restoration into her old U.S. Army Executive Flight Detachment livery; this took place by 1989. The rotorcraft has undergone a couple of repaints in the interim, of course, but by 2019, it was clear that another refresher was in order. The museum wheeled her into their massive restoration facility in late September, 2019 and began working on her soon after. However, as we know all-to-well, the global pandemic hit our shores just a few months later and this caused significant delays in restorative work during 2020. But things were looking up for the helicopter in 2021. After lots of preparation, the Chocktaw was finally ready for the paint booth this Spring. By mid-September, 2021, the presidential helo was ready to go back on display next to another famous VIP transport, this being the Lockheed VC-121A Constellation 48-614 which soon-to-be President Dwight D. Eisenhower used during the early 1950s while serving as Commander at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe). The latter aircraft was the first of Eisenhower’s Connies to receive the name Columbine.
The former presidential Chocktaw looks magnificent in her new paint, and it is great to see her back on public display. The Pima Air & Space Museum is to be commended for their vigilance and hard work in keeping so much aviation history so well presented and preserved for future generations!