MUSKOGEE, Okla. — In December 1944, military fighter pilot Sgt. John Toney of Muskogee and a crew climbed aboard the Tulsamerican, the last B-24 aircraft built at the Douglas-Tulsa plant, and headed out on a mission.
The Tulsamerican was part of President Roosevelt’s World War II “Arsenal of Democracy.” On that final mission, the aircraft was attacked and crashed, and it rests at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Croatia.
Three crew members lost their lives in the incident. Toney survived, and three weeks after the crash his wife received a telegram stating her husband was alive.
That telegram, along with Toney’s wristwatch with hands frozen in time at 3:12 p.m., and flight patches worn on his A-2 leather jacket are displayed at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum (TASM). The patches represent the 765th Squadron, 15th Air Force and the 461st Bomb Group.
Toney later wrote three personal accounts of that final mission, and those are on view at the museum, as well.
Today, TASM is working with US officials through international contacts to relocate the downed plane so that it can be brought home.
The TASM is a significant tribute to the heyday of the Tulsa aircraft industry. The museum displays include a Spartan Aircraft Co. executive model 12, which was commissioned by Spartan owner J. Paul Getty; an MD-80 American Airlines plane that flew continually for 26 years; and a Grumann F-14A Tomcat that has the names of Oklahoma pilots and crew members painted on its nose.
TASM exhibits feature another Muskogee connection in addition to Toney. The name of Lieutenant Commander Gerry Raynes of Muskogee also is captured on the nose of that Tomcat.
The display of the Spartan executive aircraft is considered the flagship at TASM. It was the last one Spartan manufactured and once was used by company executives to visit Oklahoma oilfields.
Its pristine restored condition is certainly eye-catching and impressive.
Getty was once the richest man in America thanks to an oil lease empire started in 1915 in Oklahoma. He purchased Spartan military aircraft company in the 1930s. It’s said that old company signage and a building known as the Getty bunker where he stayed can still be found near the Tulsa International Airport.
A Spartan NP-1 World War I bi-plane worth more than $100,000, according to research, also is part of the TASM exhibits. It has a wood structure wing covered with cotton and a steel fuselage, also covered with fabric. The aircraft is like one that former President George H.W. Bush used for his first solo flight.
Museum visitors can actually touch and feel the power that’s exhibited throughout the museum.
For instance, a Pratt and Whitney R-1340 WASP engine is presented openly, showing off 1,344 cubic inches of piston displacement and its nine-cylinder, single row radial. The engine is 51.80 inches in diameter and 43 inches in length, and weighs in at 865 pounds.
A Styrofoam-carved replica of the former entryway into the Tulsa Municipal Airport was created by the first TASM employee. The airport’s original art deco sconces light up the entryway display, and frames of the authentic doorways stand tall, leading into the exhibit. And, just as famed pilot Amelia Earhart did decades ago, TASM visitors can walk through those doorways today.
Another up close and personal TASM experience is a chance for a visitor to finger-trace on a wall map the route the Tulsamerican aircraft took from point of enemy attack to its eventual drop into the sea. That map has been touched so many times by thousands of visitors that the finger impressions are clearly visible.
Kids of all ages can sit in authentic Lufthansa fleet aircraft seats and push buttons and use the headsets. In fact, during a recent tour, TASM staffers had gathered around another set of visitor-accessible airplane seats. It was joked that the team was meeting in the “conference room.”
TASM also has several exhibits portraying America’s venture into space. The displays include personal items belonging to astronaut Bill Pogue, including a representation of his flight suit; Skylab memorabilia and space flight photos.
Oklahoma has a direct connection to space flight, in addition to its impressive list of astronauts. Cargo bay doors for the Space Shuttle were built in Tulsa.
Oklahoma astronaut Commander John Herrington, the first Native American in space, tried his hand out recently on a replica robotic arm, much like was used in space to collect soil samples.
A new addition at TASM is an authentic utility military Huey helicopter. Parked and secured on the property outside, it’s being refurbished by a former Huey pilot, who now is a TASM volunteer.
TASM exhibits represent the many significant contributions Oklahomans have made and will continue to achieve for our nation’s military and space flight industries.