Thursday, October 30, 2014

From Gravetapping by Ben Boulden: The Jailbird, Wendover, and "Con Air"

Posted: 28 Oct 2014 08:38 PM PDT
There is a dusty little desert town straddling the Utah-Nevada border fringing the southern edge of I-80. A ninety minute run from Salt Lake City. The dull crystalline salt flats hustle into the rocky foothills of the Silver Island Mountains. The flats stretch for miles. In the winter they flood with water, and the summer finds rocket cars, motor cycles, and just about anything else on two or four wheels, playing for speed on its flat, straight surface.

The place: Wendover, Utah.

And it has a history. It was built in 1908 as a railroad town, and pretty much stayed that way until World War 2 brought an Army bomber training base. If it was a B-24, and flew in Europe, there is a good chance plane and crew touched Wendover. Its most famous trainees were the crews of Enola Gay, and Bockscar. The fliers and B-29s that dropped “Little Boy” and “Fatman” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. The old structures, clapboard barracks, box style hangars, concrete swimming pool, rot in the dry air. A light blue sky above, and a faded alkaline earth below.

The casinos came in the early-1950s. They came to lure the Mormon population of Salt Lake City across the border to sin. And it worked. The Nevada side—called West Wendover—has prospered. The casinos hatched a fully functional small city—schools, neighborhoods, parks, parents, and children. The east has been stagnant, and poor. Its only draw is the collapsing old base, the airport, and an old propellerless C-123 Provider with a sign identifying it as the airplane used in the film “Con Air”.

Its tires flat, a wooden ramp providing access to its starboard door. A fading blue runner, or cheatline, on its silver fuselage. Faded block letters, just aft of the wings and above the door, read: UNITED STATES MARSHAL. The number N709RR painted on the tail. The words “The Jailbird” below an eagle with a ball and chain in its talons on the nose. The markings are right; matching perfectly with the “The Jailbird” from the film. The interior is torn apart. A cavernous bay occupies the majority. Bare aluminum walls, the odd wire lifting from the surface. A Gatorade bottle jammed in an I-beam near the ceiling.

The cockpit is barren. Aluminum shine with little else. Two small windows stare at the desolate desert. The original stick—wheel, I think, in this case—is replaced with something like a steering wheel from a bus. If it ever flew it was long ago. In the film the old airbase fronted for “Turner Field”; the desert location where the convict crew landed and most of the film’s action happened. If you look around you can see it. The unpainted clapboard buildings. The rotting airplane hangars, a vintage control tower—now restored—and a swimming pool, its surface covered with peeling blue paint where Steve Buscemi likely took tea with an unsuspecting girl and her dolls.

I have wondered about the plane for years. What its role in the film actually was, and, if it was airworthy then, why leave it to die? I did some research, finally, and what I found was as interesting as the airplane. It is a movie star, or nearly one. “Stand in” is more accurate. It was never flown in the film, but it was used as the Earth bound plane for the desert scenes. It taxied along the Wendover runways, a bus engine powering its wheels. It was in the film, and it played a central role, but it wasn’t the star. Instead it was a prop; part of the scenery. Very much like the abandoned airbase itself.

But still, it is pretty cool.

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