Lee Cathey just smiled as he stood with members of the Grove Ritual Team, as they welcomed the F-4 Phantom jet to Grove on Monday, Feb. 26.

Cathey, who retired from the Air Force, once worked on the very jet which now sits next to Ferra Aerospace in Grove.

It was 1979, when Cathey was stationed at Spangdahlem Air Force Base in Germany, spent a "bitter bitter cold" night working on the jet's canopy actuator, to ensure the ejection system was intact for the next morning's flight.

Seeing the jet roll into Grove, and sit next to Ferra has caused Cathey to reminisce about his time in Germany and his work on the F-4 and other jets.

"To actually work on this jet...it's like it's following me around the world," Cathey said. "To have it come to my hometown is a feeling beyond words."

Cathey retired as a master sergeant after a 20 year career with the Air Force. A branch chief at the end of his career, he specialized in the ejection systems of the jets he worked on.

"I was very fortunate, at least 10 seats of mine saved lives," Cathey said. 

Cathey said he was excited to know the Friends of the F-4 Phantom were bringing a jet to Grove.

"It means a ton to me," Cathey said, admitting it "blew his mind to realize he worked on the very jet we were getting."

Pete Norwood, one of the key organizers for the project agreed with Cathey.

Norwood once served as an F-4 Phantom pilot during his time in the Air Force. 

He likened Monday's arrival of the jet to childbirth.

"It's like we've all worked on this for so long, now that it's here it almost takes us by surprise," Norwood said. "We were used to just working on it. To actually have it here, takes me back."

Norwood said he was thrilled to have people out, lining the streets, welcoming the jet to Grove. 

He hopes members of the community, who have helped with the project to date, will take pride in what they have accomplished.

"This is an affair of the heart for me and a lot of folks here," Norwood said. "As a former pilot,who logged more than 1,500 hours over the course of 15 years, it's nice to have it here."

More about the project

With a $45,000 check to Worldwide Aircraft Recovery, Beverly Helms jokes the F-4 Phantom jet fund is a bit empty.

But as she looks at the jet, which arrived on two semi trucks on late afternoon on Monday, she knows a lot of hard work and effort to bring it to Grove has paid off.

The jet, which appears to be placed on its landing gear, now sits beside Ferra Aerospace in Grove.

Between cash donations, which helped bring the Phantom from New Mexico to Grove, and in-kind donations provided by area businesses, Helms said the the first phase of the project is complete.

Now that the Phantom is here, she hopes the group "Friends of the F-4 Phantom" can continue to seek out donations and grants to fund the second phase.

That portion of the project, which will come before the jet is formally dedicated, includes cosmetic work to the Phantom, as well as landscaping, sidewalks and memorial benches.

Organizers would also like to build an entrance to the jet off Highway 10, as well as possibly a parking lot, to help keep traffic at a minimum in Ferra's parking lot.

They would also like to install some lighting, a sprinkler system to maintain the landscape, as well as flags and proper signage.

Helms said organizers would like to raise all of the funds - or in kind donations - in order to complete the project in one final swoop. She estimates it could cost as much as $30,000 to put the final touches on the site.

"Ferra has been gracious to let us use their driveway," Helms said. "But we want this to be as self-sustaining as possible.

"We want the site to be picturesque." 

Helms said footage from the 24-hour camera organizers have placed on the Phantom show veterans and others of all ages coming to view the jet at all hours of the day.

She admits the F-4 Phantom will always be a work in progress as her husband, Dave Helms, and others who once worked on the jet continue to make improvements.

"We are so proud of the community, and its various members who have made donations," Helms said. "So many people came together to do this awesome thing.

"We want this to be long lasting, and as self-sustainable as much as possible. As we get older and pass on, we want it to keep being just as awesome."

Helms hopes the message of the Phantom, as well as its significance in aviation history, continues to inspire future generations of students who may pursue aerospace careers.

Helms said students who are members of the Civil Air Patrol are very interested in being part of the project.

"Honoring the past is extremely important," Helms said. "But it's just as important to inspire the future."

What's ahead

The formal dedication ceremony for the F-4 Phantom will come sometime in the next few months, most likely in the summer or early fall. 

It will come, Helms said, after the site work is complete. 

Organizers hope to invite several people with connections with the F-4 Phantom, including a pilot who flew in the first mission, the pilot who flew on its last mission, and more.

They also hope to find a way to bring an F-4 based in Texas, which is the last flying Phantom to the ceremony.

"Right now we're continuing to raise funds and to catch our breath," Helms said. "Then we'll start planning for the future."