HICKORY — The P-3 Orion welcoming ceremony at Hickory Aviation Museum on Wednesday had been postponed six days due to Hurricane Irma. Yes, the storm would have kept people away. But let’s be honest, a P-3 probably could have handled it.
The model of plane has been used for anti-surface warfare and disaster relief, and the modified “Kermit” and “Miss Piggy” hurricane-hunter models were used to fly into storms.
But the P-3 that arrived in Hickory on Wednesday focused on detecting submarines. And for museum curator Kyle Kirby, the plane’s focus is one of the reasons having one in Hickory is so special.
“There’s no chance to survive a preemptive (submarine) strike, but these guys keep us safe at night,” Kirby said. “We’re bringing in a plane today that represents a whole interface of a bunch of people that proudly served this nation.”
Citizens, volunteers and government representatives gathered at the airport Wednesday to watch the P-3 fly over and around the Hickory Regional Airport multiple times before landing and becoming the 15th plane in the museum’s collection.
Nearly everyone at the ceremony spent the moments leading up to the flyover expressing their excitement, whether it was through telling old war stories or, in Kirby’s case, singing songs by The Beatles and The Band.
But for the Walden family, the excitement was of a different kind.
John Walden is a retired air traffic controller and the father of Lt. Cmndr. Trey Walden, the P-3 pilot who flew the plane from Jacksonville, Florida, to Hickory — a 1.5-hour flight. And Wednesday was the first time John ever saw his son fly.
“That’s why I wanted to come up and get up in the tower and try to film this, but we’ll see how it goes,” John said about 30 minutes before the plane landed. “This is really cool stuff here, for me. And (Trey) is excited, too. He doesn’t get very excited, but he’s excited about this.”
But although excitement is sometimes an uncontrollable emotion that comes with nerves, Trey Walden did not express it, as the cool, calm and collected pilot gracefully flew and landed the plane with ease.
Walden then turned around the plane and drove it between two fire trucks. The trucks showered the plane with water, a ceremony that is done when a plane completes its final flight. The plane has been active in the military since 1969, Kirby said.
“For our taxpayers, you hear all these stories about the military,” Kirby said. “I don’t know how many years that is right off the bat — 47, 48 years of service to the United States military. That’s pretty good return on our taxpayers’ money. And it’s served the country all over the world.”
When the plane finally parked and the roaring engines stopped, roaring applause took its place as Walden walked down the plane’s stairs to the runway and greeted his family.
Before citizens were allowed to board the plane for a tour, a short ceremony was held on the runway, during which Hickory Mayor Jeff Cline gave a key to the city to each crew member.
Multiple people spoke during the ceremony, including Walden, who gave some background on P-3 models.
The planes have been flown by the military since 1962 and were used in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“It has really been a worldwide asset that we’ve used,” Walden said.
Because P-3 missions can take up to 12 hours, 11-person crews are used on the plane, which can fly from 200 feet above the water to 31,000 feet in the air, he said.
The retired plane finished with 19,417 flight hours, Walden said. That’s not including the 1.5 hours the trip took on Wednesday.
And that trip would not have been possible without Stan Lenharr, Kirby said. Lenharr, the P-3 configuration manager for the United States government, is the one who was able to get a P-3 to Hickory, Kirby said.
There are only about six other places people can view a P-3 on display, he said.
“This makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up — that’s how proud I am,” Lenharr said during the ceremony. “For all you folks and your friends and family and your kin from way back, come look at it.”
And the planes at the museum may be fun to look at, but before the ceremony, looking out at the planes and the people gathered on the runway, Kirby suggested people come to the museum for another reason.
“I think we’re doing one of the greatest things for the community,” Kirby said. “Bring your kids out here and let them know the sacrifice. The air we’re breathing right now, the free air, and the sound of freedom we’ll hear in a minute, it ain’t free.”