Rome’s Museum of Flight is holding its grand reopening Saturday, featuring a World War II BTD-1 Destroyer — the only one of its kind left on the planet.
Built in 1943, the BTD-1 was meant to be launched off aircraft carriers, but since the war was already winding down by the time it came off the assembly line, only 26 were made.
The one at the Museum of Flight at Richard B. Russell Regional Airport, 304 Russell Field Road, was the first off the assembly line and the only one remaining, according to Bill Darby, aircraft maintenance coordinator for the museum.
“The plane was found in a field in New York,” he explained. “A bunch of guys from the museum traveled up there and took it apart in that field and brought it back here to add to the museum’s collection.”
Crews have been working around the clock since September to reassemble and paint the plane. They just finished last week and were able to move the craft to its proper home outside the museum Sunday.
The labor of love was an experience for Darby, one that earned him his call sign nickname.
“I got to be part of the painting process,” he laughed. “I got so much blue paint on me, they started calling me ‘Smurf’ and it stuck.”
Darby added that getting to see the interior of the plane amazed him.
“I got to climb into the bombardier’s seat,” he said. “It was like that moment in the Indiana Jones movies where he discovers the Ark of the Covenant. It was just an incredible experience to see it.”
The plane, with its 50 foot wingspan, weighs 12,000 pounds. The 18 cylinder engine harnesses 3,350 horsepower — more than enough to power the 14-foot diameter propeller, which is still waiting to be installed.
The BTD-1 joins nine other planes at the museum, and Darby and the rest of the volunteers and staff are getting the place ready for the reopening.
Most of the planes are stored in the hangar. A room off to the side tracks the history of flight from the Wright Brothers on through modern day. Donated display items offer vignettes of life during World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and the museum is not yet complete, Darby said.
“For the reopening, because we are featuring a WWII plane, I am bringing in some of my grandfather’s and father’s memorabilia,” he said. “I have some ration books I’m bringing in to show what life was like back home, too.”
The museum is a hidden gem in Rome, he said.
“It’s like the Smithsonian in Rome,” said Darby. “There is so much to be learned out here. We are a nonprofit and have a huge volunteer base, made up of retired military and just anyone who is passionate about aircraft.”
The museum staff is constantly looking for help, said volunteer coordinator Chastity Ambler.
“We always need people with motor pool or mechanical ability, but we would also love to have people without flight experience to act as guides or docents,” she said. “You learn something new every time you are out here.”
Darby said he is especially hoping to find some locals that are licensed A and P — airframe and powerplant — mechanics.
“We could use some volunteers to help us in that area,” he added. “If anyone out there would like to volunteer, please call me at the museum at 428-228-2FLY.”
The grand reopening is Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 and will feature tours, special exhibits, food, activities and a demonstration of thrust and torque featuring a car racing a plane.
Also, Huey and Cobra rides will be available — costing $99 and $675, respectively.