The cockpit of the T-38 Talon supersonic trainer was a little big for Judy Ross, but the Bowling Green resident still reveled at the chance to dangle her legs near the joystick and listen as Arnie Franklin explained the workings of the aircraft Saturday at Aviation Heritage Park.
“I was ready to go,” Ross said after her turn in the cockpit during the “Hoods Up” event held in conjunction with the National Corvette Museum’s 25th anniversary. “Arnie told me about all the gauges and controls. He knows his stuff.”
Franklin, a Bowling Green native and retired U.S. Air Force pilot who flew the F-111 attack jet during his career, was one of several AHP volunteers on hand for Saturday’s unique event that showcased the T-38 and a red 2006 Corvette convertible that has in its engine bay autographs of NASA astronauts such as Neil Armstrong and John Glenn and Corvette enthusiasts like outgoing NCM Executive Director Wendell Strode and race driver Andy Pilgrim.
A steady stream of visitors from toddlers to retirees came to check out both the jet and the Corvette, machines tied together by their connections to NASA and its astronauts.
“The Corvette people and the plane people have a similar interest – speed,” said Beth Pickens of Austin, Texas, in town for the NCM’s 25th anniversary.
But the Corvette and the T-38 have a bit more in common than raw power.
The red Corvette’s owner, NASA Safety Specialist John Legere, has made it his mission to turn the vehicle into a rolling tribute to astronauts – many of whom once received Corvettes from General Motors – and Corvette lovers.
He has collected autographs of 35 astronauts and 18 Corvette engineers, drivers or executives.
“I’ve been collecting autographs since 2007,” Legere said Saturday as visitors perused the names under his car’s hood. “I always carry a silver and a black Sharpie. “Working for NASA opens that door for me. I’m closer to the astronauts than most people will ever get.”
The T-38, as Franklin was quick to point out as he took a break from hoisting toddlers into the plane’s cockpit, also has a strong tie to NASA and its astronauts, dating back to the Mercury and Gemini programs.
As the world’s first supersonic trainer, the T-38 with tail number 901 on display at the AHP has been flown by dozens of pilots in training to be astronauts.
“That airplane reeks with history,” Franklin said. “The 12 men who walked on the moon all sat in that very airplane, and all the Mercury and Gemini astronauts flew in it.”
The T-38 and the Corvette brought in the visitors Saturday, and many of them left impressed with the display of seven aircraft in the park at the corner of Three Springs and Smallhouse roads.
“I think it’s wonderful that all these planes are being displayed,” said Pickens, whose late father was a fighter pilot. “It’s full of memories for people like me, and it’s a great educational resource for young people.”
Such enthusiasm is welcomed by AHP board members, who used Saturday’s event to promote the “Take Off 2020” fundraising campaign. The aim is to raise $2.5 million to pay for an 11,000-square-foot aviation museum on the AHP site.
Designed to look like a 1930s-era military aircraft hangar, the museum would house aviation memorabilia and fragile aircraft like the Piper Cub similar to one flown by Glasgow native and aviation pioneer Willa Brown.
“The beauty of this park is the story of the people we honor,” said Larry Bailey, a longtime member of the AHP board of directors. “There are so many stories that can be told in the museum.”
If they’re going to be told, though, that fundraising goal must be met. Both Bailey and AHP board President Joe Tinius believe they are on target to get museum construction started next year.
“We’re making progress,” said Bailey, who pointed out that a groundbreaking held last fall and the site work already completed give the capital campaign some momentum. “Work on the site has already started, and that makes it easier when you start talking to companies (about contributing to the campaign).”
With a local foundation already pledging to contribute $500,000 toward the project provided it’s matched by other donors, Tinius is optimistic that the museum can start coming out of the ground soon.
Tinius also revealed that a group called the Red River Rats, started by Vietnam-era fighter pilots, has strong Kentucky ties and has expressed interest in a partnership with AHP that could boost the capital campaign.
“That may allow us to get through some doors,” Tinius said. “It could be a major step.”
And that step could help the AHP’s museum project take flight on schedule.
“We’re stepping up our process of making local, state and national contacts to raise money,” Tinius said. “We still want to begin construction next spring and open the museum in the fall of 2020. If we don’t push in that direction, it may just linger.”