Eight volunteers from Abilene — some active duty in the U.S. Air Force, others retired plus one spouse — continued their mission Saturday at Brownwood Regional Airport to preserve two fighter jets on static display.
“It’s a win-win for us and for the City of Brownwood,” David Vargo of Abilene, who is retired from the Air Force, said as he and volunteers scraped off old paint, taped edges for precision, and applied fresh coats. “The Air Force doesn’t just let airports have these jets and not expect them to be maintained. They threaten to take them away.”
Vargo’s wife, Beverly, the only woman at the site Saturday, said she was pleased to have been “drafted” to participate.
“These jets are like a house,” she said. “You have to keep maintaining them, and it’s been a while since these have had any.”
The Air Force notified the city last year that the aircraft needed to be painted in order to comply with its loan agreement, city council members were told.
The volunteers included William Lenches, an Air Force retiree who is also executive director of the 12th Armored Division World War II Memorial Museum in downtown Abilene. He and Vargo were painting the F-4 fighter and pinpointing locations for new decals.
“The F-4 Phantom pretty much defined an era in U.S. military history,” Lenches said. “When the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines all choose it, you know it’s pretty good.”
Lenches added that the 12th Armored Division museum of which he is curator has military equipment on display outside, so he appreciates how brutal Texas weather can be on such exhibits.
Military aviation sources indicate that the McDonnell Douglas F-4 was introduced in 1960 and was retired in 1996. It was used extensively in the Vietnam War.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Vargo was joined by others who worked around, under and on top of the General Dynamics F-111, which was introduced by the Air Force in 1967. They included active duty volunteers Henry Hahn, Blake Johnson and Joseph Fernandez, and Air Force retirees Robert King and Kim Rodgers.
Their task Saturday was sanding surfaces in preparation for a fresh coat of paint. A battery-powered sander was being used for larger panels, but most of the work was being done painstakingly by hand.
“It’s not too bad,” Rodgers said, looking up briefly from the task. “The more hands we have on this, the less time it takes.”
Vargo said he originally had 10 volunteers lined up for Saturday, but an illness and a last-minute conflict took the number of available to eight.
At one time, Johnson, Fernandez and King took perhaps the most precarious perches, climbing on top of the F-111 to work on sanding. They delayed that part of the work until the morning’s dew had evaporated and the surfaces were not so slippery.
It was Johnson, however, who worked his way forward from the tail section, where they had gained access to the top, all the way to the cockpit where the canopy was almost opaque. After lying down on top of it, Johnson scraped it with his hands. He inched his way close to the front windows, but didn’t quite make it.
“I think that’s as far as I’ll go right now,” Johnson said with a smile. “I could feel I was beginning to slide forward.”
It’s the third trip volunteers from Abilene and Dyess Air Force Base have made to the Brownwood airport to work on the two aircraft, and Vargo said at least one more workday will be needed to complete the task.
“We’ll go through mid-afternoon today,” he said Saturday, “but we don’t have a lift, so we’ll need to come back to do the tail sections.”
Brownwood City Manager Emily Crawford expressed appreciation for the work the volunteers are doing in a email sent to the Bulletin.
“The City of Brownwood is extremely grateful for this volunteer group’s passion to preserve our military history and presence in West Central Texas,” she said. “They are providing a valuable service to our community, and we are excited about showing off the jets’ new paint job.”
Vargo said the volunteers learned of the city’s need for maintenance of the aircraft from media reports last May. Airport Manager Billy Burks had asked, and received, a budget allotment for the work after the Air Force contacted him to say renovations were needed, but bids came back in the $45,000 range. Council members expressed concerns over the cost of such a large expenditure when it was compared to the number of people who actually see the aircraft. Action on accepting a bid was tabled.
In July, the city presented a proposal from the Abilene volunteers to do the work for expenses, saving local government some $42,000. The council approved an expenditure of $2,800.
“I found out what kind of paint the Air Force wanted to use on these aircraft, and the industrial enamel is readily available,” Vargo said. “We figured it would cost about $2,300 for supplies and the city added some money for other expenses.
“We just hope these restored aircraft will become an attraction and result in more people coming to the airport,” Vargo said. “It will be a way to help boost growth for the airport and business in the Brownwood area.”
At the July city council meeting where the agreement with the volunteers was approved, Brownwood Mayor Stephen Haynes said the city needs to find ways to express its appreciation, and Crawford agreed. Snacks and refreshments for the volunteers are being provided on their workdays, and an appreciation visit to Abilene was also proposed when the work is completed.