By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – At one time, the F-105 Thunderchief was an impressive and devastating machine.
“It was a very long fighter bomber,” said Col. Carlye “Smitty” Harris of Tupelo, who flew the F-105 during the Vietnam War. “It was designed to go very, very fast, straight and level.”
West Point resident Lt. Col. Gene Smith, who also flew the Thunderchief during Vietnam, realized it was going to be a great airplane during training, when the Mach 2-capable machine was a blur across the Nevada desert.
“If you want to see what it can do,” Smith said, “there are hours upon hours of footage on YouTube.”
A decommissioned F-105 sits at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas, where it waits to make the journey to Tupelo’s Veterans Park.
The plane’s flying days are over, but it remains a powerful symbol of heroism, honor, duty and sacrifice.
On this Veterans Day, the Jet Volunteers are asking Northeast Mississippians to help bring the Thunderchief to Tupelo. The volunteers raised about half of the projected cost of $60,000, which includes delivery, initial maintenance, placement at Veterans Park and ongoing maintenance.
The plan began about three years ago, said Terry Anderson, a “Jet Vol” from Saltillo. The Tupelo Department of Parks and Recreation signed on, and officials were contacted at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
“The easiest part of all of this was dealing with them,” Anderson said.
The Air Force quickly agreed to loan the F-105 to Tupelo. Since then, local officials and volunteers have been raising money and working out logistics to get it shipped.
“We’re trying to figure out how to transfer it to Tupelo,” said Don Lewis, director of Parks and Recreation.
The first plan would’ve used a helicopter to fly the plane to town, but that’s been scuttled. A new plan involves removing the wings and shipping the F-105 on two flatbed trucks, then reassembling it in Tupelo.
Delivery is estimated to cost between $27,000 and $28,000, but there might be ways to mitigate that, said Michael Addison, another Jet Vol.
“Any in-kind donations for this thing would be great,” he said. “For instance, we could use fuel donations.”
Drew Robertson, another Jet Vol, said in-kind donations also could include aircraft restoration, as well as work on-site design and construction at Veterans Park.
“Once we have the jet on the ground and thus a tangible visible goal, then some of these other pieces hopefully will begin to take form,” Robertson said.
CREATE Foundation is taking donations. Visit www.createfoundation.com, click on “Make a Donation” near the top of the home page, then scroll down to Veterans Park Memorial Jet Special Project to donate money.
In addition to individual donations, Jet Vols have approached a variety of businesses to support the project. The city of Tupelo’s Quality of Life Committee has contributed.
“This will definitely benefit the quality of life in Tupelo,” Addison said.
It’ll also be a reminder of the price for freedom paid by Harris, Smith and other veterans. The two F-105 pilots went down in North Vietnam and spent years as prisoners of war. Harris was held captive for eight and a half years.
“He calls me a short-timer,” Smith said, “and I did five and a half years.”
The two veterans from Northeast Mississippi can count themselves among the lucky.
F-105s were nicknamed “Thuds” because of early design trouble. The nickname took on a different meaning, Smith said, “when quite a few went ‘thud’ in North Vietnam.” Out of about 600 flown during the war, 397 were lost in enemy action, Smith said.
The Thunderchief is a large airplane, weighing more than 53,000 pounds when fully fueled.
“It felt like you were sitting way up high,” Harris said, “and this long pointed nose was way out in front of me. I was amazed the first time I got behind the controls.”
In addition to its physical size, the F-105 will cast a symbolic shadow when it’s finally placed at Veterans Park, a place to honor those who gave some and those who gave all.
“This will happen,” Addison said. “Tupelo is really good about pitching in when they see a good cause like this.”