The F-4D Phantom jet parked in a hangar at Orlando Executive Airport does not look like much now, its paint faded and scratched, stripped of its engines and instruments. But it once was considered the mightiest flying machine in America's war arsenal.
That's the way retired Col. Joe Kittinger sees the old jet. After all, it's akin to a companion for him, one that served him well during his third and final tour during the Vietnam War.
"It was just a really tough, wonderful plane," said Kittinger, who flew the jet four or five times during the 150 missions he commanded over the skies of steamy Southeast Asia.
It was in sister jets during the Vietnam War that he shot down an enemy MiG jet and was, himself, blown from the sky by the missile of a foe.
Now, 42 years after he was released from the infamous Hanoi Hilton prisoner-of-war camp, Kittinger has brought the jet back to his adopted hometown.
He intends to clean it up, reapply the camouflage paint it sported during the war and display it in Col. Joe Kittinger Park at the southwest corner of the executive airport.
There, the jet will serve as a memorial to the men and women of Central Florida who served in Vietnam, including 333 who lost their lives.
"It is important not to forget history, not to forget the people who died for this country," said Kittinger, 85.
An aviation pioneer who once held the record for the longest skydive (19 miles) and flew a balloon across the Atlantic Ocean, Kittinger is trying to raise $180,000 for the display. He is about $100,000 short and plans to hold a fundraiser in September, though details have not finalized.
So far, Kittinger said, more than 170 people have each contributed from $5 to $10,000. He has about 40 volunteers helping, including his wife, Sherry.
"He's very excited," she said. "It's [the jet] finally here, finally making progress."
Kittinger has been working on the memorial for four years.
The jet had been kept at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas, about an hour south of Dallas. It was disassembled and transported to Orlando about a week ago on two flatbeds pulled by a tractor-trailer. The trip cost $30,000, Sherry Kittinger said.
Though he was shot down in one of the Phantom 4Ds, Col. Kittinger remembers the jet as possessing "tremendous power. It was very agile."
Capable of flying at twice the speed of sound, the jet was used to protect ground troops, escort bombers and engage in fights with other supersonic aircraft.
Kittinger was born in Tampa, but lived in Orlando as a youngster. He flew for the now-closed Rosie O'Grady's entertainment complex downtown for 15 years, ending in 1996. He towed advertising banners and flew balloons.
In all, Kittinger said, he has flown 93 different types of aircraft and spent more than 16,000 hours aloft.
And now he has one of his favorite jets in Orlando.
"That F-4 took care of me," Kittinger said. "We're going to take care of it."
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