Treasures can be found in the most ordinary of places. A worn cardboard box can neatly contain a wealth of memories. For Ken Benson, a former test engineer at Pratt & Whitney, one such treasure is old film footage of his days testing the JT9D in a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. Thanks to digital conversion, the images are again unlocked, and a fascinating story takes flight.
"There's an aura about it. It's an airplane that has a tremendous history to it," Benson said recently from the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. His love of flight remains, and he now shares his experiences as a volunteer there.
The B-52 once served as Pratt & Whitney's flying test bed, housed at Bradley International Airport. Only five employees ever flew the magnificent machine, and Benson was one of them.
"In 1968, when the JT9D was developed and going to market, Boeing insisted that they fly before they put it on their four engine 747, so we acquired a B-52 from the Air Force," Benson said.
His Pratt & Whitney flight jacket and helmet rest on a table nearby and remain in pristine order. His eyes light up as he talks about the plane, and Benson probably wouldn't balk if you asked him to jump back into the cockpit.
"The thing I pride myself on, and everybody looks at me like I'm a two-headed billy goat at times, is we taught ourselves how to fly the airplane," he said.
Recollections of flying are as rich as the captivating film kept safely in his possession. He clearly remembers the first time he was told to take the controls of the Boeing aircraft.
"The fella that I was replacing, his name was George Gordon, said, 'Benson, get up here and learn how to fly this airplane.' I says, 'Yeah, about time. Yay! Get out of that seat and let me in!'"
He lets out a hearty laugh, and then continues.
"So I left the flight test engineer's seat in the back of the airplane and climbed into the co-pilot's seat and I got my first night landing, or first landing was at twilight right here at Bradley Airport."
This recent taxi down memory lane is thanks to the awakening of another sleeping giant, this time in the Arizona desert. After seven years in storage, the United States Air Force made history by successfully firing up Pratt & Whitney's TF-33 engines on a B-52 called "Ghost Rider" from the "Boneyard," a long-term storage facility at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. It's the first time a B-52 has been resurrected after sitting idle for so long.
"The B-52, is quote, 'an antique airplane,' 50 years old or better. Have it come out of storage like that, being in there a long time, being the fact that we can do that, do it successfully, is a credit to our systems and our technology," Benson said.
Unfortunately, Benson's beloved B-52 had a much shorter life than its "Ghost Rider" sister, severely damaged in 1979 after a violent tornado raced through Windsor Locks. Film once again captured a moment - a fortress apparently vulnerable at rest. Large pieces of the hangar are draped over the aircraft like a sheet, and there is debris everywhere. Repairs took a year and she flew again for 18 months before final retirement in the "Bone Yard."
"(The damage) was quite traumatic here at the airport," Benson recalled.
Years later, the nostalgia is palpable. Staring at a successful re-birth in the desert, Benson remembers what it was like guiding the massive, metallic bird. It's a treasured experience often revisited in a memory, or, through an old film kept in a cardboard box.
"It was a lot of romance, it was a true romance," he said.