By Andrew Rodriguez.
On Sunday December 14th, over a thousand people from central Florida and around the nation came together at Orlando Executive Airport in Orlando, Florida to dedicate a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II as a memorial to the many central Floridians who served in the Viet Nam War, and especially to the 350 who never came home. Orlando native Colonel Joe Kittinger USAF (Retired) actually flew this specific aircraft, serial number 65-0747, on four combat missions over North Viet Nam while commanding the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the ‘Triple Nickel’, out of Udorn Thailand (1971-72). He even flew her again after the war when based at RAF Lakenheath in England with the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing (1975-77).
Over 60 businesses in central Florida donated products and services to make this monument a reality. Interestingly, one of these companies, Castle Constructors of Orlando, Florida, is owned by Orestes Lorenzo, the Cuban MiG-23 pilot who defected to the United States in March, 1991. The following year Lorenzo flew back to Cuba in a Cessna 310 to rescue his wife and two young sons and bring them back to the USA.
Given the strong ties to Colonel Kittinger, the memorial couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate aircraft to put on display. Kittinger is a legendary pilot with three tours of duty in Viet Nam and nearly 500 combat missions. The last of these missions in May, 1972 resulted in him being shot down and taken prisoner in North Viet Nam, where he endured nearly a year of brutal treatment and torture before his release. Kittinger is perhaps better known for one of his earlier aerial feats though, when he set the record in 1960 for the highest parachute jump in history, leaping from a ballon at 102,000 feet. His record was only recently broken by Felix Baumgartner. Colonel Kittinger was also the first man to fly a gas balloon solo across the Atlantic, which he achieved in 1984.
During his speech at the memorial dedication ceremony, Colonel Kittinger called Orlando Executive Airport his “Field of Dreams”, as during his childhood in the 1930s, he often rode his bicycle past what were then cow pastures to watch the airplanes take off and land. He of course tried to talk pilots into giving him a ride, sometimes successfully. Kittinger also remarked how he hoped the F-4 and the park named in his honor would serve as an inspiration and “Field of Dreams” to following generations. So with many old friends and new ones by his side, Kittinger cut the ceremonial ribbon and opened the park to the public. The park will provide an everlasting reminder to the sacrifice of those who served, but in so doing, hopefully spur future Floridians to greatness as well.