HICKORY – From a Fury to a Tomcat to a Phantom, if it flew for the U.S. military, it’s probably represented on the Hickory Aviation Museum’s flight line.
The museum opened in 2007 with the help of the Sabre Society of North Carolina in Hickory, a volunteer aviation historical group focused on restoring and preserving vintage military aircraft. It has more than a dozen aircraft on display at the Hickory Regional Airport.
“These airplanes were defending our freedom for a long time and they deserve something better than being put into a scrap heap,” Jeff Wofford, president and director of the museum, said.
Wofford is a Navy veteran and said the idea for the museum had its start in 1990 when the group was trying to save a FJ-3 Fury, the Navy’s version of the F-86, which was a Korean War-era jet.
“It was sitting up at a ballpark in Taylorsville and was severely abused. It had been shot at, beat on,” Wofford said.
The society members knew they had to save it if they could. One thing the members of the society wanted from the museum was for it to be a true, immersive, and hands-on experience for visitors.
“These things are more than just chunks of metal. People spent their lives flying these things,” Wofford said. “They flew in defense of our country in these airplanes. They’re a piece of history.”
A good example of being able to touch history at the museum is the F-14 cockpit placed on a trailer and outfitted with all the flight instruments. Visitors can even sit in it. The cockpit has the paint scheme of the squadron it was actually a part off in the early 1970s and is one of the few F-14’s to see action during the war in Vietnam.
“We want kids to come out here and be able to touch stuff,” Wofford said. “It’s one thing to sit here and look at but it’s another thing to walk up and put your hands on it and be able to get in it.”
The museum recently received a SH-3 Sea King Navy helicopter. It was designed for anti-submarine warfare with the Navy and as a transport between carriers and support ships. Visitors are welcome to walk into the aircraft and check out all of its stations.
The Sea King is one of eight-year-old Watts Rogers’ favorites on the flight line. His father Matthew Rogers said his son is always finding something new to learn about every time they visit.
“The passion the volunteers here have is one of the reasons, from a parent’s standpoint, I like bringing him here,” Matthew Rogers said. “It’s because of their passion they have for what they’re doing and the fact they enjoy passing it on to someone else that makes it special.”
Preserve, honor and educate
Along with preserving each aircraft, the museum focuses on preserving the history of each one, recognizing those who flew them and worked on them.
“These are the people, who during a very difficult time in our history were defending us,” Wofford said. “The F-4 we have was part of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was on one of the carriers that was out there during the blockade.”
The A-7 Corsair on the flight line also has some significant history.
“We dedicated this airplane to Lt. Commander Scotty Greiling several years ago. We hosted Attack Squadron (VA) 82’s reunion,” Wofford said. “The airplane is painted up in their paint scheme. The Lt. Commander was the only combat loss on that cruise. His airplane was shot down in Vietnam.”
It was eventually discovered the museum’s A-7 was one actually from the same squadron, VA-82, so it was decided to name it in his honor.
In 2006, the U.S. Navy approached the society and said they had another F-14 available if the museum was interested. It was the last of its kind to fly for the Navy before the model was retired from service. This also sparked the need for the museum.
The Hickory City Council agreed to let the group take over the old flight service room at the Hickory Regional Airport. It had been closed down for years. The city also gave the society a third of the ramp for their aircraft. The museum first opened to the public on Memorial Day weekend in 2007.
Eric Beckler is the museum board chairman and a U.S. Navy veteran pilot. He first got involved with the museum in 2002. In the Navy, he flew several aircraft including the A-6 Intruder off a carrier. Beckler recently got to lead a tour of a group of local STEM students and got to share his knowledge about the aircraft from a practical point of view.
“There are three airplanes out there that I went through flight school,” Beckler said. “The T-2 Buckeye was the first one I landed on a carrier. I’ve got that personal connection with these airplanes.
“Those airplanes were very good to me. They taught me a lot, and I got to serve with some of the greatest people in our country, and I try to pass that on with these groups we have come through.”
Retired Air Force Brigadier Gen. Larry Huggins served with the F-105F Wild Weasels in Vietnam and said the museum is the place to come to experience U.S. aviation history because of the volunteers.
“There are two purposes for this museum, show respect for the veterans and educate the young kids on what went on,” Huggins said. “The history here is unbelievable. You can’t put a price tag on it, and it’s run by all volunteers.”
Admission to the museum is free and is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4p.m.; and Sunday from 1-4 p.m.
For more information, visit hickoryaviationmuseum.org or call 828-323-1963. The Hickory Aviation Museum is at 3101 Ninth Ave. Drive NW, in Hickory.