CHINO — The Cold War may be over, but the folks at the Chino Planes of Fame Air Museum can still feel a chill.
The museum, the oldest of its kind in the West, figured it had scored a real coup last summer when it purchased two Soviet MIG combat jets through a broker who imported them from Poland.
"We were ecstatic," museum Vice President Karen Hinton said, recalling the group's acquisition of the MIG-15 and MIG-17 jets. "We had Japanese, British, German and American aircraft in our collection, and to add something from the Russian theater really rounded things out."
The planes, which are disarmed and similar to those flown against American forces in Korea, were lovingly restored by museum volunteers. Painted a shiny silver with the red Soviet star, the craft were displayed prominently in a hangar and quickly became a popular attraction.
But then one day agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms happened by, and the museum's festive mood quickly soured. It seems the jets were purchased in violation of federal regulations forbidding importation of military equipment from certain unfriendly countries, including Poland.
As they poked around a bit more, the federal agents spotted a 1947 Soviet-designed biplane called an Antonov that they concluded was also brought in illegally by the museum from Hungary more than two years ago.
"It is the policy of the United States to deny the importation of military aircraft from proscribed countries, based on our belief we should not contribute to their armament industries by purchasing implements of war," said Jack Killorin, a bureau official in Washington.
Although federal authorities "certainly do not believe this purchase will upset the balance of power and sink the Free World," the law is the law and the three planes must go, said Robert Mantel, a spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Political and Military Affairs. Other officials have informed the museum that it must turn the planes over to the U.S. Customs Service or seek permission to sell them to a U.S. military facility.
Museum Officials Complain
Museum officials, who say they had no idea their purchases were prohibited, were quick to cry foul. For starters, they argued, all three planes soared through customs in Los Angeles--partially disassembled but clearly marked--without a whisper of protest.
"They sat on the docks down there for two weeks and customs passed them right through," Hinton said.
Moreover, Hinton added, MIG aircraft from other countries, including China, have been routinely imported by other collectors in recent years.
And, perhaps most irritating to museum supporters, the U.S. government itself frequently purchases MIGs and other planes from nations on the proscribed list, using them both for display in military museums and as targets for bombing drills.
"It seems there's a real double standard here," said Frank Mormillo, a spokesman for the 31-year-old museum, which showcases its collection of 90 vintage aircraft--many of them operable--in a cluster of buildings near Chino Airport. "They tell us we can't deal with these countries, but they do it themselves."
Customs officials concede that they erred in allowing the planes to slip through: "We made a mistake," spokeswoman Maryanne Noonan said. "Those planes never should have reached the museum, but over a million containers a year come in through the seaport. We physically inspect only a small percentage."
Museum Given Time
Nonetheless, Noonan argues that the agency has "bent over backwards" in its dealings with the museum. The plane buffs have been given ample time to look for a way out of their quandary and have been permitted to keep the aircraft on display all the while, Noonan said.
"We could have moved in and seized them right away. We didn't," Noonan said. "We've granted them time to seek intervention. But this is not going to go on forever and ever."
Determined to keep the Antonov, which is in flying condition, and the two MIGs, museum officials have launched a frantic search for help. A "save the MIGs" petition drive was initiated, and close to 7,000 signatures have been collected.
Two congressmen have joined the battle--Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Highland) and Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove). Dornan, a museum supporter and former Air Force pilot, has discussed the museum's predicament with high-level State Department officials and has pledged to take the matter up with President Bush if necessary.
Dornan is determined that the museum be permitted to keep the planes, said Brian Bennett, Dornan's chief of staff. "This whole thing is silly. What you have here are some low-level bureaucratic functionaries who have dug in their heels and created a big mess," Bennett said.
Dornan also is drafting legislation allowing the importation of military artifacts from Hungary and Poland for educational use by American museums.