KENNESAW — A special moment in aviation history was made in Cobb County on Monday when the last operational model of a unique Lockheed aircraft landed for the very last time.
The pristinely maintained JetStar 1329, built in Marietta in 1966 and once owned by the Saudi Arabia royal family, touched down at Cobb County International Airport — McCollum Field just after 9 a.m. to applause from around 100 spectators.
It is the last working Lockheed JetStar, an aircraft considered to be the grandfather of today’s corporate jets, as it was the first of this class when it first flew in the late 1950s, according to the Aviation History and Technology Center, a Marietta museum.
A Florida family that’s owned the aircraft for the last 30 years donated it to the museum, formerly known as The Aviation Wing.
Pilot John Poffenbarger, who’s spent the last 21 years flying the plane around the world for the family members, who wish to remain anonymous, said they wanted it to return to Marietta, where it was built.
“We were able to preserve a piece of art,” he said. “This aircraft probably has more photos snapped of it than any other aircraft in the world.”
The plane, still featuring World War II technology, will become a star attraction at the museum, where visitors will be able to climb into the cockpit and try all the buttons and dials, or sit in one of 11 passenger seats, fitted with stowable wooden tray tables, ashtrays and cup holders.
“There is already a JetStar at the museum, but it’s a little older, it’s not operational and it’s not in as good of a condition as this one,” said Mark Morgan, museum director.
Worth over $300,000, the JetStar donated Monday was one of 202 built in Marietta. Lockheed also built two prototypes of the aircraft in California.
Many of Lockheed’s JetStars went to large corporations, celebrities and governments around the world, according to a news release from the aviation museum.
“Variants of the aircraft also served United States Air Force leaders, including presidential transport to President Lyndon B. Johnson,” the release stated.
The donated plane will be dismantled and trucked to the aviation museum, where it will be reconstructed, with the aim of it being open to the public within six months, Morgan said.
He and others involved in the museum were only just contacted by the plane’s owners, around three weeks ago, and told they were being given it.
Plans to have the aircraft land at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, where it took off on its maiden flight five decades ago, fell through because the donation had to happen before Dec. 31 and Dobbins couldn’t accommodate the landing within that time at such short notice, Morgan said.
Monday’s JetStar landing in Kennesaw was also special for another reason.
Co-pilot Frank Blount, of Melbourne, Florida, ended his 60-year flying career with the 90-minute journey to Cobb.
A two-tour Vietnam War pilot, Blount spent 20 years in the Air Force, flew weather reconnaissance missions in the Pacific, and piloted Air Force One during the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
He has amassed around 36,000 flying hours since getting his private pilot’s license while a student at Florida State University.
Blount was greeted upon landing in Kennesaw by his son, Steve Blount, who is also a pilot.
Asked how it felt to land his final flight, Blount Sr. cited regret.
“Nobody’s ever happy that those days are over,” he said.
At least the four-engine aircraft matched the height of the occasion, according to the experts.
The Lockheed JetStar has a cruising altitude of about 37,000 feet, can last six hours in the air before it runs out of fuel and is considered, by many pilots, to be the best aircraft to fly, Poffenbarger said, having flown about 3,000 hours in the donated model himself.
“The pilots I’ve talked to over the years have always had one common comment about Lockheed, that it was always the best flying aircraft,” he said. “I’m kind of jaded because for 21 years I’ve been flying this and I’ve become accustomed to it. She’s a crotchety old lady, she’s 53 years old, but she flew up here today just fine.”
Poffenbarger, who started flying in 1962, said the donated JetStar has completed 10,905 flying hours.
“The plane is really stable and we’ve been fortunate to keep it operational,” he said. “Our director of maintenance Eric Boyd is a genius.”