At this year’s 4th of July Bristol Parade, parade-goers got a look at a Korean War jet fighter like the plane Ted Williams flew in combat from 1952 and 1953.
“This may be the first time that a full-sized combat airplane has participated in the Bristol parade,” said Rhode Island Aviation Hall of Fame (RIAHOF) President Frank Lennon.
By parading the partially restored F9F Panther, RIAHOF hopes to increase the visibility of its efforts to honor and recognize the state’s aviation and military heritage, especially its plans to bring the retired aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy to Narragansett Bay.
“It’s important for people to know that what they will be seeing on Monday is still very much a work in progress,” said John Gibbons, who manages job training and workforce development projects for the Hall of Fame and the USS JFK project.
“While a tremendous amount of work has been completed on this airplane, there is still a ways to go before we have a finished museum-quality exhibit,” he cautioned. For exhibition purposes, it will be marked the same as Williams’ 1953 Marine Corps Fighter, VMF-311.
Gibbons said planning for the parade took into consideration the height of the tail and the width of the fuselage. “Even with the wings off, this is still a formidable float!”
The F9F Panther will be an attraction at the USS John F Kennedy museum and education center organizers hope will be coming soon to Narragansett Bay.
“The shops, tools and equipment aboard a modern aircraft carrier are equal to if not better than the best vocational training schools in the state,” Gibbons added. “For the past several years, we have developed pilot programs, such as this aircraft restoration, and have welcomed the involvement of high school and college students as well as veterans.”
Stan Essex, who served as a plane captain for F9F Panthers aboard an aircraft carrier during the Korean War, is leading the restoration effort. Now 80, the Warwick veteran is at the museum workshop in North Kingstown almost every day, painstakingly repairing damage incurred during a 1997 crash landing in Kalamazoo, MI.
Essex served in the Navy for four years, from 1950 to 1954, and was the Navy’s equivalent of the crew chief for the Panthers.
“In the air, the plane belongs to you,” he recalled telling the pilots at the time, “but down here on the carrier they belong to me.”
In the infancy of carrier-based jet aircraft, people like Essex had to adjust to problems as they arose, such as installing nylon nets in case the tailhook missed the landing line, to keep planes from hitting each other on deck. He also recalled noticing how the hard slam to the deck that the rear of the Panther received on landing that routinely raised the paint on rivets and weakened the tail assembly. He started reinforcing the spine of the fuselage, just in front of the tail section, and the practice spread to Panther crews everywhere.
“When the tail got bent, even a little bit, it threw the controls out of whack,” he said. “It was somewhat like how your car drives when it is out of alignment and you are constantly compensating with controls to keep it straight. It’s not necessarily the worst thing that a pilot had to deal with, but any distraction while you are taking off or landing on a carrier is not good.”
Like most New Englanders, Essex was a little in awe of Williams’s abilities.
“Ted was quite a talent,” Essex says. “He was as good a pilot as he was a baseball player. It is an honor to be able to work on this project dedicated to his accomplishments.”
Lennon first came up with the idea of a “Ted Williams Airplane” in 1997, while running an aviation museum in New York.
“Although Grumman built more than 1,300 of these fighters, only nine are still in existence,” said Lennon, ”And of those, only two are privately owned. We had feelers out to friends on the war bird circuit for years.”
Williams himself supported the idea, and agreed to become involved once a Panther was acquired. His death in 2002 forced a revision of the plan.
The idea was revived in 2005, when Lennon had an opportunity to acquire one of the two F9F Panther fighter aircraft in the United States. This Panther had been flying on the air show circuit for a number of years and won awards for the quality of its restoration and its rarity. The plane crash-landed near Kalamazoo in 1997, and was donated to the local air museum by the injured owner-pilot. (The Panther Williams crash-landed in Korea was not so lucky; he walked away from the wreck as it burned in place.)
“Plans to restore the Kalamazoo aircraft to flying condition never materialized, and when the F9F was put up for auction we seized the opportunity and purchased it with private funds,” said Lennon.
USS Saratoga Museum Foundation, Inc. brought the aircraft from Michigan to Rhode Island in pieces five years ago and became part of the Rhode Island Aviation Hall of Fame/USS John F. Kennedy project.
The plane will become the centerpiece of the New England branch of the Ted Williams Museum that has been established in Florida.
“We will have a permanent display of Ted Williams artifacts and memorabilia as part of our aircraft carrier attraction,” said Lennon. “The Florida museum has promised to provide enough baseball material so that our visitors can make the link between Ted's military and baseball careers."
The museum has run three Red Sox Legends golf tournaments in recent years to raise funds. These tournaments have featured more than 20 former Red Sox. The Red Sox organization has endorsed the project and the Red Sox Foundation has supported it financially.
“Former Red Sox GM and Rhode Island native Lou Gorman, [who died this year] was our Master of Ceremonies each year,” Lennon said. “What most people don’t know about Lou is that he was also a Navy veteran who also served aboard an aircraft carrier during the Korean War.”
The New England Tractor Trailer Training School in Pawtucket towed the airplane in the parade.
The Grumman F9F Panther was the first jet-powered fighter to see widespread service with the Navy and Marines. It was the first Navy jet to shoot down an enemy aircraft, the first to shoot down an enemy jet, and the first jet used by the Blue Angels aerobatic team. The Panther entered service in 1949 and were the first carrier jets in Korea for almost half of the attack missions. The feats of those pilots and the planes they flew are almost forgotten as much as the war itself but Essex is grateful to do what he can to keep that history alive. There are plenty of World War II and Vietnam movies finding audiences. Other than M*A*S*H, the movie and the TV series, there are few Korean stories that have entered the national memory.
“Actually, the movie [The Bridges of Toko-Ri] was one of the most accurate movies I’ve ever seen as far as technical details go,” said Essex. “Aside from the mushy story, it really gave you an idea of what it was really like.”
Williams missed three full seasons (1943-45) during World War II and most of the 1952 and '53 seasons in the Korean War. Japan surrendered before William’s saw action in the Pacific but seven years later, he flew 39 missions over Korea.
Williams was once forced to land his jet on one wheel. After he came to a stop after skidding 2,000 feet, Williams walked away from the wreck as firemen hosed it down. He acted “as if he had just popped out with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth – he yanked off his helmet and slammed it to the ground,” according to one source.
Now that’s the kind of American story that is worthy of a nation’s memory.