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Air Force Association members restore aircraft at space museum

Fast jets anchored to the ground showcase the U.S. military’s historic war fighting machines, but they rust and fade over time.

It usually takes complaints about them becoming eyesores from the public before someone does something about it, according to retired Air Force Col. Bryan Bennett. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Whenever the Air Force Museum releases a piece of equipment for display, he said, one of the requirements is that its appearance be properly maintained. That rarely happens because there’s no budget for it. It’s a nationwide problem.

Bennett is part of the Tennessee Valley Air Force Association Chapter 335, which is 500 members strong. For several years, he and others from the group have served as docents at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s Aviation Challenge, home to several Air Force jet displays.

Seeing the displays’ faded paint and deterioration caused by the elements prompted the group to do something about it. Through a partnership between AFA and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, an Air Force F-4, F-111 and AGM-28 Hound Dog missile once carried by B-52s during the Cold War era are looking as good as new.

Bennett said AFA conducts free one-hour tours for the public at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s Aviation Challenge Campus at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

“We like to expose visitors to all of the aircraft, aircraft flight simulators, and other activities available for Aviation Challenge campers to use each summer,” he said.

Their pride showing, they wanted the Air Force jets up to par.

To get the project started, they met with Deborah Barnhart, the rocket center’s CEO. Then AFA started looking at the cost, fundraising, and vetting vendors who specialize in aircraft restoration. AFA and the rocket center agreed to split the cost, and each raised half of the funds required, Bennett said.

“The whole thing took two and a half years,” he said.

“I’m incredibly grateful for the Tennessee Valley Air Force Association’s efforts to return the aircraft to tip-top condition,” Ed Stewart, U.S. Space & Rocket Center curator, said. “When we’re able to do these projects, we are able to engage the students who go to Aviation Challenge even more and to excite them about the aircraft and their history within the Air Force.”

For the F-111, the AFA wanted to paint it in the El Dorado Canyon camouflage scheme that was used in the Gulf War era. Bennett said the F-111 on static display was a prototype of the longer wing that was put on later models of the F-111. It was the first fighter to swing its wings back for supersonic flight.

Stewart worked with the AFA volunteers to choose the livery schemes that best fit the aircraft – yet another benefit of having people so closely connected to the jets involved. Students attending the program as well as the staff were able to talk to the volunteers while they were working and learn about their careers.

 “It was a great example of interchange between us and another organization in our community,” Stewart said.

Bennett and several of his AFA comrades flew F-111s. Since the Aviation Challenge curriculum focuses on air power and how different planes are designed to do different things, he said the committee sought a hard won approval to change the paint scheme from silver to camouflage to make it a more realistic teaching tool. It took some doing, he said, because of the strict Air Force guidelines.

Another issue they ran into with the F-4 was finding fuel caps for it.

“We had lots of guys on the committee pitch in and do things,” he said.

Unlike the F-111, the F-4 at Aviation Challenge has a battle star from the Vietnam War. It shot down a Mig-21 in Vietnam on Jan. 2, 1967, Bennett said.

As the planes were being restored, committee members realized they’d have a small amount of money left over from their fundraising efforts. Bennett said the committee again asked the rocket center’s permission to have the AGM-28 Hound Dog missile restored as well.

He said the Hound Dog was primarily designed to be capable of attacking Soviet ground-based air defense sites prior to a potential air attack by B-52 Stratofortress long-range bombers during the Cold War. 

“The excitement of the instructors at Aviation Challenge while they watched as the planes were getting fixed up was good to see,” Bennett said. “They talk to the kids every week over the summer, and when the airplanes look like crap, it’s hard to keep their attention. But now with fresh paint, they’re able to show the kids what it really looked like, giving them a more realistic impression.”

Flying jets is fun, he said. “And hopefully we’ve shown them we still uphold the Air Force values of integrity first, service before self, and excellence in everything you do.”

Bennett said the local AFA was recently named Best Large AFA Chapter because of the work they do in the community, at Aviation Challenge, sponsoring scholarships, celebrating Air Force milestones, and recruiting new members.

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