By Joel Hall
In 1952, a Martin 404 airplane with the serial number N9234C came into the service of the now-defunct Eastern Air Lines. For a time, the plane ran commercial routes in, and out, of Atlanta. In the 1960s, it was acquired by singer Ray Charles, and was used as his personal aircraft.
In the 1970s, the plane was modified into a freightliner, transporting pesticides and other chemicals. Since 1978, it has been sitting in a storage facility in Sheridan, Wyo.
Last week, the plane's cockpit made a six-day journey from Sheridan, Wyo., to Forest Park, Ga., to find a home at the National Museum of Commercial Aviation.
According to Grant Wainscott, executive director of the museum, the cockpit represents the first section of aircraft to be featured at the museum. It will be cleaned, repainted, and displayed alongside the museum's Martin 404 cockpit trainer -- the only known Martin 404 trainer left in existence, according to Wainscott.
"It was originally an Eastern Air Lines plane and Eastern Air Lines was such a big part of Atlanta's growth," Wainscott said. "The plane went in, and out, of Atlanta for years, so it is great to bring the plane back to where it began life," he said. "To be able to save a piece of history that belonged to Ray Charles, that is really special. You can still see the circle signs on the side of the cockpit, where Ray Charles' logo used to be.
"We also have the world's only-known Martin 404 cockpit trainer," he said. "Those will sit side by side. People can see, side by side, how people used to train and how closely, or not so closely, the trainer resembles the aircraft ... That is very rare."
The plane was donated to the museum in August by Prop-Liners of America, a Hartford, Conn.-based preservation society dedicated to preserving historic planes, according to Wainscott. Due to excessive corrosion in the fuselage, and the cost associated with transporting an entire place across the country, the cockpit was cut from the fuselage on Oct. 9 and trucked from Wyoming to Forest Park last week.
"We would have liked to take the entire airplane, but with the cost and the restoration it would have taken, it was only feasible to bring the cockpit," Wainscott said. "We are under increasing pressure to find these aircraft before they are crushed. These planes are usually sitting in a lot somewhere running up a bill. Rather than the entire airplane being crushed, we were able to take the cockpit."
Stephanie Hensley, collections manager of the museum, said the cockpit will eventually be repainted to match its original Eastern Air Lines colors. She said the eight-foot section of cockpit will give visitors a true sense of the aircraft, as the museum plans to eventually let visitors sit at the controls.
"It's a great visual aid," said Hensley. "We just have the cockpit. It is an eight-foot section and it is huge. I think it will re-emphasize the complexities of an airplane. For people to see the dynamics of what they were training in, and what they were flying -- I think people will find that intriguing."