A unique project is underway in Bowling Green, Kentucky to preserve an F-4 Phantom that has a definite hometown connection. Tim Savage investigated the story for our readers, while John Fleck shot the photos.
In the pre-dawn darkness of April 16, 1972 four F-4 Phantoms of the 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron roared off the runway at Udorn, Thailand enroute to North Vietnam The 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing to which the 13th TFS reports, launched a total of 20 Phantoms as part of Freedom Porch Bravo.
At the controls of the number three F-4 in the flight was Major Dan Cherry. In the back was Captain Jeff Feinstein. Cherry was on his second tour in the theater. His first tour, between January and August 1967 resulted in 100 missions into North Vietnam at the controls of a Republic F-105 “Thunderchief.” He volunteered for a second tour and was assigned to the Udorn, Thailand based 13th TFS.
The flight of Phantoms of which Cherry was part were assigned to fly MIGCAP for a strike into Laos. When the strike package did not arrive, they proceeded to their secondary patrol area. Shortly after they arrived on station, they were engaged by several MiG-21s. Even though his Phantom was plagued by missile problems, Cherry was still successful in downing a MiG with a AIM-7 Sparrow radar-guided missile. Following the MiG kill, Cherry would go on to a long and successful career in the U.S.A.F. Reaching the rank of Brigadier General and leading the Thunderbirds along the way before retiring to Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Cherry’s Phantom, an F-4D Serial No. 66-7550 would soldier on for nearly another twenty years before being retired from its final assignment with the 906th Tactical Fighter Group based at Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio. Unlike a large number of the retired Phantoms, 7550 would get another lease on life, although not in a flying role. The Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Enon, Ohio was looking for a suitable display for the front of their facility. The F-4D was moved to their location and placed on display. Over time enthusiasm for the display waned and the aircraft began to deteriorate due to the harsh weather conditions.
In 2004 Cherry was asked to arrange a tour of the USAF Museum by a number of friends in the Bowling Green community. “A group of guys about my age, in their mid to late 60’s, have a group that gets together early every morning and goes on a real fast walk. We’ve been doing it for 10 or 15 years and its turned into as much a social gathering as anything else. Because of my Air Force background they wanted me to set up a special tour of the museum. About eight of us went to Wright-Patterson and we had a big weekend planned. After the museum we planned to take in a ballgame in Cincinnati. At the museum a member of the staff came down to greet us. He told us, ‘You know, there is an airplane that should be of interest to you guys from Kentucky and it might become available sometime soon.’ I knew what he was talking about because I had seen my old airplane about two years prior. When the VFW had gotten permission to put it on display they had contacted me and told me that they were going to display it and wanted to know if it might be possible to come up for their ceremony. As it turned, out, I couldn’t do it for some reason. I wasn’t retired at the time and I just couldn’t get away. After the tour everybody wanted to go over to Enon and see my old Phantom. We went over and found it. It was sitting in the middle of this field in front of the hall, and it was in pretty bad shape. Grass was growing up all around it and it just had dirt and bird droppings all over it. Even so, it was great to see the airplane again and know it had survived, but it was also sad in a way as well, because it was in pretty bad shape. They had good intentions, but they just hadn’t been able to take care of it.”
After visiting the airplane, the rest of the group was enthusiastic about obtaining the F-4D and moving it to Bowling Green. Cherry wasn’t convinced it was a good idea. He recognized that just getting the airplane to Kentucky and place it on display was only the beginning. Without long term care, the plane would quickly descend back to the current state of disrepair. The group was not deterred and persisted in trying to convince General Cherry to come on board. Eventually he relented. “One of our friends is a retired attorney here in town and also a real bonafide historian had done a lot of research on aviators from this part of the country who had distinguished themselves. These aviators stretched all the way from World War One through to space exploration. Many of these stories, as remarkable as they are, are just not known to people. Most folks have never heard of these significant stories. So we started talking about putting together a plan to build a park that we would call Aviation Heritage Park. It would be a place to display artifacts that have some historical ties to a person, a real person, from our area. This really struck a positive note with me personally because I was a little apprehensive about just getting my Phantom here and then leaving it at that. I didn’t want this to be self-serving in any way.”
The group formed a non-profit corporation and gained the support of the local country government. The county filed the paperwork with USAF Museum to obtain the airplane and designated the Aviation Heritage Park organization as their agent for the removal and refurbishment of the airplane. Worldwide Aircraft Recovery was hired to move 66-7550 from Ohio to Kentucky. In November 2005 the airframe was disassembled and then reassembled at Warren County Regional Airport in Bowling Green, where the park was to be constructed. In May the Vietnam era paint scheme that the fighter wore when Cherry downed the MiG was reapplied. According to Cherry, “We took great pains to restore it exactly as it looked back in 1972. We wanted to be precise as to where the green and the brown camouflage paint blended together and certainly we have all the markings exactly like they were in 1972. We’re real proud of the outcome.” In order to finish out the display, the group is looking for the complete instrument complement for the front and rear cockpit.
Now that the first exhibit has been prepared externally, the group is hard at work preparing the site for its display. “We’ve got engineering and an architectural firm engaged, and a conceptual design completed. And we expect to break ground in early spring 2007 and have phase one complete and 550 in place next summer. As soon as we do that we are going to be busy looking for other artifacts that we can put on display. Our conceptual design has room for a total of seven aircraft. With the Phantom being the initial display, we add others as resources permit. However, we don’t want to put airplanes on display just because we can get them and they are handy. They have to have a story to tell about a real person or persons that have some ties to either Western Kentucky University here in Bowling Green, or this part of the state of Kentucky. That is our kind of niche. We are hoping by doing that we will be an inspiration to the younger generation of kids that may aspire to a career in some form of aviation.”
Most likely the next acquisition for Aviation Heritage Park will be a helicopter. Many veterans from western Kentucky flew helicopters in combat, so a Huey or Cobra would be appropriate. Another important addition that Cherry would like to see added to the park is a Grumman F9F Panther. “I know it will be a long shot for us to find a Panther, although I know they exist on display. A gentleman from our area by the name of Johnny Magda was assigned to the Blue Angles in 1949 and became their leader in January 1950.” Magda was flying Wildcat’s during the Battle of Midway in June 1942 when his plane ran out of fuel after attacking Japanese aircraft carriers. He ditched in the Pacific and floated in a rubber life raft for five days before being rescued 300 miles from where he went down. Assigned to the U.S.S. Saratoga, he would go on to down four Japanese aircraft. When the Korean War broke out the Navy disbanded the Blues and they were assigned to the U.S.S. Princeton. On March 8, 1951, Magda was leading an attack on North Korean and Chinese installations at Tanchon when his jet was hit and burst into flames. He headed out to sea, but crashed and was killed. “He was just a remarkable, remarkable guy and just the kind of guy that you would give anything to know. After talking to people who actually knew him and flew with him you find out that he was everything that his press releases said he was. He was a special kind of a commander, leader and aviator. That is why we want a Panther. It can tell a bigger story than the airplane itself.”
All of the activity surrounding the preservation and display of Cherry’s MiG-Killer Phantom, has led to another quest. Cherry is now on the hunt for the pilot of the MiG-21 he downed that April day. “I was in casual conversation with the same group of guys who person who started this process, and in casual conversation one of them said ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could find the pilot of the MiG.’ The more I thought about it, I thought ‘Gee Whiz, that would be something.’ I personally would really like to meet this guy. At the time of the shoot down we believed he was Vietnamese, not Russian or Eastern Bloc. We don’t know that for a fact, but it was rumored that he had several kills to his credit. I don’t know what his name was, but I know he survived the shoot down because I saw him very clearly and up close in his deployed parachute. It was also rumored he went back and flew more missions. I would eventually like to facilitate meeting between the two of us. I am trying to use some leads through a local businessman who has contacts over there to track him down. The Vietnamese Air Force kept excellent records of their engagements so we just need to find the right person who can help us track him down.”
Cherry sums up the goal behind the Aviation Heritage Park, “We see the Phantom and every other artifact that’s being discussed more than a monument. More than anything else they are designed more as an educational. That is why we want to display all the a artifacts down on their landing gear so that we can have platforms on-site and hoist school groups and tourism groups up to actually get in or look in the cockpit so they can try to personally experience what it might have been like to fly that particular airplane.