“Did somebody order an airplane?” joked Worldwide Aircraft Recovery Vice President Marty Batura on Saturday afternoon as he drove a NASA T-38 Talon airplane into the Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport, while members of the Aviation Heritage Park snapped pictures of the arrival.
“It’s like a bunch of expectant fathers,” said Bob Pitchford, a board member for the park.
The plane is the fifth acquisition for the park, 1825 Three Springs Road, which aims to promote the stories of prominent aviators from the region. The T-38 was flown by astronaut and U.S. Marine Col. Terry Wilcutt, a Russellville native and Western Kentucky University graduate.
“It’s an actual piece of history that people can touch with their hands,” said Jim Wright, president of the park.
The U.S. Air Force has the largest fleet of T-38s, which are used primarily for training pilots, but NASA also maintains a fleet of T-38s for astronaut training and travel. NASA owned the T-38 acquired by the park for more than four decades, during which time it was used by all the astronauts who flew missions during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, including John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong. Of the 28 astronauts who have been awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, 24 have flown this particular T-38, which has a tail number of 901.
“It’s not just a T-38. It’s a T-38 that has a lot of history behind it,” said Jerry Roark of Allen County, a board member for the park.
NASA decommissioned T-38 No. 901 in 2011, and it was sitting in the boneyard of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. until the park acquired it. Unlike the other planes at the park, which are on loan, the T-38 was given outright to Warren County, and it’s in better condition than several of the other planes when they first arrived in Bowling Green.
“It’s remarkably intact,” Wright said. “It’s in really good shape.”
The plane has no exterior damage and has all its external parts and pieces, so park volunteers will be able to restore the plane to its condition at the time it was retired, down to the exact paint colors.
“It will never fly again, but we want it to look like it just came off the line, ready for the next astronaut to fly it,” Wright said.
Roark, who flew a T-38 during Air Force training, is chairman of the restoration committee. He plans to reassemble the plane today so restoration can begin by the end of the week. He hopes the exterior will be presentable for the park’s annual Hanger Party in June, though restoring the cockpit will take several more months.
“I’m pretty excited about getting the opportunity to work on this,” Roark said. “I’m thinking it’s going to go pretty quick.”