A historic F-4D Phantom II arrived in Orlando Tuesday from Corsicana, Texas; a convoy of trucks carrying the plane’s parts weaving its way through the crowded city streets. The fighter jet will receive a restoration and serve as the
centerpiece in Joe Kittinger Park on the shores of Lake Yvonne at Orlando Executive Airport. US Air Force Colonel Joe Kittinger is a legendary pilot, having made history in August, 1960 for his daring parachute jump from 102,800 feet in a high-altitude balloon. He set four world records with that jump which have only recently been broken by Felix Baumgartner’s jump from nearly 128,000′. During a distinguished USAF career, Kittinger served as a test pilot, Squadron Commander, and Vice Wing Commander. He flew 483 combat missions over three tours during the Viet Nam war. His first two tours were in the Douglas B-26K Counter Invader ground attack aircraft, with his third being with the 555th FS in the F-4D Phantom II. He shot down a North Vietnamese MiG-21 during that period, however his luck ran out on May 11th, 1972 just before the end of his final combat tour. His jet received devastating hits from an air-to-air missile strike over Thai Nguyen. He and his WSO Lt. William J. Reich ejected safely, but spent the next eleven months as a prisoners of war in the Hanoi Hilton where they were tortured. In March, 1973, Kittinger regained his freedom and returned home to the USA. He continued his Air Force career until retiring as a colonel in 1978. He subsequently set two world ballooning records and won numerous ballooning competitions, as well as serving as Felix Baumgartner’s CapCom during his balloon jump on October 14th, 2012 which broke Kittinger’s records from 1960.
The newly-arrived Phantom II will receive markings like those worn by Kittinger’s wartime aircraft, and take pride of place atop a pedestal in the memorial park at the east end of South Street. It will serve as a tribute to all Viet Nam War veterans. “It was used [heavily] during the Viet Nam war, and anyone who was in Viet Nam is going to remember this airplane, because this is the airplane that they saw most frequently,” Kittinger said. Kittinger told WFTV in an interview that he’s proud to have his fighter jet dedicated as a memorial to the lives of hundreds of central Floridians who died in Viet Nam, saying “There were 333 people from central Florida that died during Viet Nam. So this is respect for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Kittinger said.
The restoration costs and monument preparation are expected to run about $100,000. Kittinger said, “I’ve got a wonderful group of volunteers here in Orlando that are engineers and technicians that are helping with the project. We still have some fund raising. We haven’t raised enough money yet for the project.” Much of that money will be raised beginning on Labor Day at a new event called Vet Fest in downtown Orlando.
This F-4 is part of two efforts to bring warbirds for display in the Orlando area in the near future. WarbirdsNews has learned of a fascinating, and under-represented vintage military aircraft that a US Army veterans group is trying to transform into a fitting memorial to the crews who flew and maintained them: a Beech RU-21 Ute. The RU-21 is based upon a Beechcraft King Air A90, but with significant modifications for signals intelligence work. They saw extensive service during the Viet Nam War detecting enemy signals traffic and evaluating radio wave transmissions. Obviously, it was quite a dangerous mission, as it required flying over hostile territory. But being that it’s both from the cloak-and-dagger realm, and not as “glamorous” as a combat aircraft, the RU-21′s mission is largely unknown to the general public, so it is refreshing to see a proper memorial coming together to celebrate its exploits. The 138th Aviation Company Memorial is working on this solution, but they need our help. Here is their report on what they have been able to achieve so far: click HERE.