Bastrop community rallies to restore Vietnam War fighter jet

The Bastrop community is raising money to renovate a jet that served during the Vietnam War.
The Bastrop community is raising money to renovate a jet that served during the Vietnam War.

BASTROP COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Call it a mission, or call it an obsession. Either way, the people of Bastrop are in a fight to bring a Phantom back to life.

One of the last F-4D Phantom fighter jets stationed at the former Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin is sitting outside of American Legion Post 533 in Bastrop County.

“If you want to call it a war hero, it’s a Vietnam veteran. There’s some shrapnel damage on it from the war and most of the time is spent in Europe before came to us, so it’s a Cold War veteran, too, if you look at it that way,” said Dennis Walter, veteran and crew chief of the 924th Tactical Fighter Group.

The McDonnell Douglas F-4D-31-MC Phantom II 66-8768 was built at the McDonnell Douglas plant in St. Louis, Mo., in 1966. The plane started with the famed 8th Fighter Wing Wolf Pack. 

“It spent some time in Korea and then it kind of jumped around a lot of time in Europe, Spain, it went to Germany,” Walter said.

The jet also had a unique paint job.

“The style we painted this airplane, we called it the ‘grey cloud scheme.’ It kind of matched what the Vietnam airplanes had, but they were in brown and green,” Walter said. “We painted these airplanes for ‘Gunsmoke’ in 1985, and we took the models to the show, and it’s what everyone talked about.”

The jet last served with the 704 Tactical Fighter Squadron Outlaws of the 924th Tactical Fighter Group, where the wing of the plane cracked and was never fixed.

“We had decided to fix this thing back up and put it in the stack display out in front of Bergstrom, out in front of the reserve unit if we stayed open,” Walter said. “We had it all fixed up ready to go parked outside and they closed the place.”

Walter contacted the American Legion in Bastrop, which expressed interest, and in 1996 Walter towed the airplane down Highway 71 to its new home.

“I live from the community and drive by here every day going to work, and I’ve seen the plane sitting here and I could tell it needed some TLC,” said Mel Hamner, who worked at Bergstrom AFB.

For the last 20 years, the Phantom 66-8768 has sat deserted. The paint is thinning and its patches are peeling off in the summer sun.

“You can just see from the screws and some of the rivets, it’s in dire need of some restoration,” said Herman Fabela, an aircraft mechanic in charge of restoring the plane.

The plane was repainted in 2007, but has since worn off. For this piece of history, restoration can’t be rushed.

“We are going to make it look good because that’s what the community deserves,” Fabela said.

The Legion says it will take $20,000 to restore it, so they are looking for some help. The group just set up an account to raise money at the First National Bank of Bastrop under the “Special F-4 Account”.

“To put it back where it was, it’s part of history and you need to keep history,” Walter said.

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