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Effort to Save Museum’s 3 Soviet Aircraft Takes Off

Times Staff Writer

In an unusual move, the House has approved legislation that would allow a Chino air museum to keep two Soviet MIG fighter jets and a third plane purchased in violation of a law preventing the importation of military aircraft from Warsaw Pact nations.

Authored by Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), the House amendment to a bill would allow museums and other educational institutions to import warplanes from Poland or Hungary if the craft are disarmed and at least 25 years old.

Although the legislation must still be approved by the Senate and signed by President Bush, the development brought a cheer from the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, which is resisting attempts by U.S. Customs agents to confiscate the three aircraft.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, with a bit of apprehension thrown in,” museum spokesman Frank Mormillo said Friday. “This is certainly good news, but it still has a ways to go. They could still seize our planes.”

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Imported From Poland

Last summer, the 31-year-old museum purchased the sleek, silver MIG-15 and MIG-17 fighter jets from a Los Angeles broker, who imported them from Poland. The planes, which soared through U.S. Customs without a hitch, were restored by volunteers and painted with the trademark red Soviet star. They quickly became a hit with museum patrons.

But U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents learned of the acquisitions and declared that the obsolete, swept-wing jets had been bought in violation of a law barring the importation of military equipment from certain proscribed countries. Customs officials apparently had erred in allowing the planes to slip through.

Museum directors were ordered to surrender the two MIGs, as well as a third Soviet-designed aircraft--a chubby brown Antonov biplane that was imported from Hungary more than two years ago.

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With more than $100,000 invested in the three planes, angry museum officials were quick to fight back. They launched a “Save the MIGs” petition, gathering 7,000 signatures, and began seeking congressional help.

Dornan, a frequent visitor and supporter of the museum, immediately took an interest and asked the White House to intervene. Recently, the congressman won a temporary reprieve, persuading federal officials to postpone seizing the planes for five months.

In the meantime, Dornan and other Planes of Fame Museum backers hope the amendment to the 1990 Foreign Assistance Act approved Thursday will succeed in saving the planes.

‘Floating Away’

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“We’re praying this goes through, but these bills have a habit of floating away in conference or in the other chamber,” Mormillo said.

Meanwhile, Mormillo said, attendance at the museum is up, with “lots of people coming in with the thought that they’d better see the MIGs before the feds take them away.”

If the legislative effort fails, the planes must be re-exported or destroyed. They could also be sold to the military or a government museum, which, ironically, may legally display aircraft from unfriendly nations.

Customs officials say they sympathize with the museum’s predicament but can only enforce the laws on the books.

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“We’ve sort of taken the blame for this, but we’re just doing our job,” spokeswoman Maryanne Noonan said. “We’ll be pleased to get the whole thing resolved. I hope this does it.”


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