Last week, The Aviation Heritage Park of Bowling Green, Kentucky unveiled the latest warbird that they have painstakingly restored for static display at their open air venue, a General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark. Opened to the public in 2009, the museum is dedicated to preserving aircraft with a tie to local individuals of note, honoring all veterans and aviators in the process, while providing a source of inspiration for the generations to come.
The museum’s focus on local aviators is reflected by the planes they have restored for display. The first plane displayed upon the opening of the park was McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II #66-7550. “550” was manufactured in 1967 and completed her service in 1989 after accumulating over 6,000 flying hours. The plane’s local tie comes via a mission it flew with prominent local, and member of the Park’s Board of directors, Retired USAF Brigadier General E. Daniel Cherry. Cherry and his Weapons Systems Officer (WSO), Jeffrey Feinstein were flying this aircraft as number three in a flight of four F-4Ds on a combat air patrol mission over North Vietnam. After an intense five minute dogfight, Cherry and Feinstein scored their first kill, a camouflaged MiG-21 flown by Vietnam People’s Air Force Lieutenant Nguyen Hong My, who survived both the crash and the war, and was later the guest of honor on April 16, 2009 when the Aviation Heritage Park formally opened to the public. The story is chronicled in Cherry’s book, My Enemy – My Friend.
The next plane displayed at the park, Grumman F9F-5 Panther BuNo 125992 was selected to honor local US Navy aviator, Lieutenant Commander John Magda, an aerial combat veteran of the Pacific carrier battles of World War II, later the Commander of the Blue Angels Squadron before returning to combat duty for the Korean War, where he lost his life to enemy fire. The Panther on display is a later variant than the plane that was flown by Magda, an F9F-2. The display plane served in the US Navy from 1952 to 1958, amassing 2,343 flight hours by the time of its decommissioning In November 2007, the National Naval Aviation Museum gave special permission to restore the aircraft in Blue Angels colors and placed it on loan to to be an exhibit at the Aviation Heritage Park.
The Lockheed T-33A-5 Shooting Star on display is in honor of USAF General Russell Elliott Dougherty, another World war II aerial combat veteran, who served as a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot, and on a B-29 combat crew, in addition to being a flight instructor. Later in his career, he would pilot the Shooting Star, also known as the “T-Bird,” between various far-flung Air Force Bases and Washington, DC while he was serving as the commander of Strategic Air Command. The T-33A-5 is the trainer version of the F-80, which was the US Air Force’s first operational jet fighter. The T-Bird on display came to the USAF in 1953. After serving with a Combat Crew Training Wing at Nellis AFB, in Nevada, it was assigned to the 1st Fighter Wing at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan. It was loaned to the Aviation Heritage Park for restoration and subsequent display by the National Museum of the US Air Force.
The Aviation Heritage park wanted to honor local aviator, USAF Colonel Arnie Franklin, who had flown an F-111 as mission commander during the 1986 US raid on Libya, however the actual plane he had flown on that mission was already in the possession of the National Museum of the US Air Force. Enquiries the group made with the US Air Force revealed that there was an F-111, soon to be scrapped at “The Boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Arizona that the Air Force would be willing to offer up for the group’s restoration and display. Upon inspection of the proffered aircraft, the plane, #178 was revealed to be the plane that flew Franklin’s wing that fateful night. Further research revealed that Franklin had flown this particular plane himself several times over the course of his career, though not on occasions that would be marked in history.
The Aviation Heritage Park put in for the about to be scrapped F-111 and in the fall of 2012, the plane was disassembled, loaded on to four flatbed trailers, and driven from Tuscon to Bowling Green. According to Franklin, thousands of man hours then went into getting the plane to look exactly the way it did when it took part in the Libya mission. “We brought in an illustrator who went back and researched all of the decals that are on there, all of the stencils that are on there. Everything on down to the hubcaps—the hubcaps are the same color green they were the day we launched the raid. The details are just phenomenal.”
The hardest part of the restoration proved to the removal of the grey paint that had been applied to the craft in the intervening years. Said Franklin: “I don’t know what kind of paint it was, but we thought we could just sand it off. We tried sandpaper, and it just didn’t do anything to it. The way we were finally able to get that paint off was to use a grinding wire-wheel. And there’s a fine line between grinding the paint off and hitting the aluminum skin underneath.”
Guest of honor at a ceremony coupled with a hangar dance that celebrated the completion of the restoration, the museum’s Aardvark, a combat veteran that participated in Operation Desert Storm, and the 1986 bombing of Libya, dubbed “Operation El Dorado Canyon.” In total this F-111 which the museum’s volunteers have named “Warhorse” participated in over 56 combat sorties before she was retired and placed at “The Boneyard” in 1995.
“Warhorse” is planned to take it’s place in the circle of honor at the park later this summer. And the leadership of the group is already planning for the future, including the building of a permanent aviation museum structure at the site as well as planning for the next aircraft acquisition, a NASA Northrop T-38 Talon, to honor local USMC Aviator and NASA Astronaut, Terry Wilcutt. The group has already negotiated allocation of the plane, bringing the project down to logistics and restoration. Research has shown the plane to be one that Wilcutt did pilot, though the park’s directors are confident that further delving onto the records will show that the plane received will have been flown at one time or another by “almost every famous astronaut any of us have ever heard of” which is entirely likely as NASA has been operating a small fleet of these planes for around 50 years for astronaut flight training and for use as a chase plane. NASA has been reducing the size of its fleet of T-38s of late making this as much of a “done deal” as one can have these days.
The future is certainly looking bright for the Bowling Green Aviation Heritage Center.