Saturday, November 25, 2017

Iconic jet fighter in front of former air museum near Richmond International Airport is heading to Georgia

Christine Lewis was on vacation in Pensacola, Fla., when she stopped in the offices of the National Naval Aviation Museum and saw a list of aircraft available to be loaned out for display.

"Is that an F-14?" asked Lewis, director of her own small but growing aviation museum, The Museum of Flight, in Rome, Ga.

The reply: "Yeah, you want it?"

Lewis sure did.

"'Top Gun' really made it iconic," Lewis said of the 1986 Tom Cruise blockbuster that introduced the world to the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School in Miramar, Calif., and made the twin-engine supersonic fighter a household name.

She continued: "Every teenage boy back in the '80s wanted to go to Top Gun, and some of us teenage girls. When I think American air power, I think F-14, F-16, F-18. ... To me, when those jets fly over, it's the sound of freedom."

Lewis, ready with a screwdriver, was in Richmond earlier this month, eager to begin what promises to be a months-long process to break the plane down so it can be transported to Georgia from the former site of the Virginia Aviation Museum near Richmond International Airport in Sandston. One of the last flying Tomcats, the F-14 was flown into Richmond in 2006 from the VF-31 squadron at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach to adorn the entrance to the museum, operated by the Science Museum of Virginia.

The Science Museum board opted to close the air museum last year over problems with the aging building that had housed the collection of aircraft and years of low visitation that made the museum financially unsustainable.

Only the F-14 and an A-7 Corsair, which is bound for the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, remain, said Rich Conti, the science museum director.

Richmond's loss is Rome's gain.

"It's huge," said Lewis, whose museum has a handful of mostly flyable propeller aircraft. "This jumps us into the jet age." They hope to have the F-14 in Rome in time for the museum's Open Hangar Gala in April, a major fundraiser.

Luckily for Lewis, she will have some help disassembling the jet.

Ray Noe of Starke, Fla.,  a former civilian aircraft mechanic who spent more than two decades working on the F-14, is serving as the technical adviser for the move.

And two of Noe's buddies from the Naval Aviation Depot at Naval Station Norfolk, Jeff Branch of Chesapeake and Mark Stiegler of Portsmouth, joined him to kick the tires of the jet earlier this month and help get it ready to move. It will head first to the Virginia National Guard facility at the airport while it awaits an Air Force team to finish the job and either load it onto a flatbed trailer or into a cargo plane for delivery to Rome.

"I grew up on this airplane," Branch said. "I was a 20-year-old snot-nosed kid. They let me work on this airplane and paid me to do it. I couldn't believe it. ...  I came to see my friends and get my hands on the airplane I love again. There's something about it. They don't make 'em like this anymore."

According to research performed by the Georgia museum, the fighter, Bureau No. 164346, flew combat missions over Iraq and was aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier during former President George W. Bush’s "Mission Accomplished" speech.

Bill "Pinch" Paisley, who retired from the Navy as a commander after 10 years on active duty and 15 in the reserves, remembers the plane well. He was the radar-intercept officer, sitting in the back seat of the plane, when it was flown from the Grumman factory on Long Island to Miramar in March 1992.

The Navy retired the Tomcat in 2006 after roughly three decades of service. Many were scrapped to avoid parts falling into Iranian hands. The U.S. sold Iran the fighters in the 1970s, when the countries were on better terms, and Iran is the only country still trying to keep them in the air.

"I just love the jet," Paisley said. "It was a big part of my life. It was big and powerful, they kind of likened it to a muscle car. It wasn't the newest but it was the best. I loved my time flying it. ... I'll definitely get down to Rome, Ga., to see her when she gets moved."

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