Abilene resident Bill Lenches, an Air Force veteran and curator of the 12th Armored Division Museum, interrupted his work briefly as he stood between the two historic Air Force jets parked near the Brownwood airport one recent morning.
David Vargo, another Abilene resident and museum volunteer, continued the massive job of repainting the weathered F-4 Phantom and F-111, twin-engine, two-seat fighter bombers from the Vietnam and Cold War eras.
Lenches, whose Air Force jobs included aircraft maintenance, was familiar with both jets.
“My uncle used to say the F-4 was living proof that if you put a big enough engine on anything, including a brick, that it would fly,” Lenches said. “He was a naval aviator who flew these in Vietnam.
“The thing about the F-4 is that it had just so much power, and for its time, an incredible amount of technology. It was purpose-designed as an air-to-air fighting aircraft.
“It was thunder. It was fury. It was just the queen of the air.”
Volunteers from the 12th Armored Division and Dyess Air Force Base have made several visits to the Brownwood airport, where they’ve worked to repaint the two jets. They’re on loan to the City of Brownwood from the Air Force, and the Air Force wants the jets repainted.
The Abilene volunteers are doing the job for the cost of material, travel and expense, saving the city more than $40,000.
It’s been a months-long process, as the volunteers had to suspend work for the winter because the paint won’t set right in cold weather.
Lenches and Vargo were joined by another volunteer, Army veteran Tom Stone, who’d seen the F-4s fly overhead while serving in Vietnam.
“We’re airplane guys,” Vargo said when asked what motivated the volunteers.
“We’re like Kelly’s Heros,” Vargo said. “We’re a private enterprise operation. Both of these planes belong to the Air Force. Every so often they check up on them. They see what kind of condition they’re in.”
Perched on a ladder about 10 feet above the ground, Vargo carefully spread paint on the F-4’s tail. Vargo admitted he doesn’t enjoy heights and “it’s not a fun place for me up there. I just don’t look down.”
It’s slow, precise work, as the painters follow an Air Force manual to get the camouflaged paint schemes and Air Force decals as accurate as possible.
“David and I are both model builders,” Lenches said. “You strive for a certain degree of precision in what you’re doing. When you’re working on the real airplane, there’s no excuse for ‘oh, my hands are too big, the model’s too small. We really go for the best we can do.
“I actually have a copy of the Air Force technical orders to make sure we have the colors right. You’ll see a lot of display aircraft where people just picked something they thought looked right.”
Vargo said the Air Force manuals specify “the size of the letters, the size of the numbers, where the placement goes, what goes where. Everything’s all specified in that technical order.”
The two jets will never fly again — but they’re looking fresh and proud, thanks to the volunteer aircraft painters.