Metro-East News

Historic plane grounded at Airplane Park — but only for a while

Veterans to restore plane at 'Airplane Park'

The airplane at "Airplane Park" is undergoing restoration, explains Supervisor Frank Miles. The plane has been on display for 26 years, after being retired from military service.
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The airplane at "Airplane Park" is undergoing restoration, explains Supervisor Frank Miles. The plane has been on display for 26 years, after being retired from military service.

The plane that soars over the so-called “Airplane Park” in Edwardsville is grounded, but it will fly again.

The U.S. Navy A7E Corsair has been on display on a pylon in Robert C. Stille Edwardsville Township Community Park since 1991, but no one ever calls it by its name. Instead the park on Center Grove Road is known to almost all residents as Airplane Park, because of the plane on display.

The Corsair took her maiden cruise in 1975 with the USS Nimitz, and was stationed there for five years. In 1982, it was moved to the USS John F. Kennedy, and in 1984 to the USS Saratoga. Nearly all her missions were flown in the Mediterranean, including combat in the Libya engagement in the Gulf of Sidra during the Reagan administration in 1986, according to Supervisor Frank Miles.

The aircraft was struck from active service in March 1991 and was assigned to the National Naval Aviation Museum, which then loaned it to Edwardsville Township for display in Airplane Park.

But over the last 26 years, the plane has deteriorated with weather and animal nesting, and its paint is peeling. In October, the township board approved a contract with the Flight Deck Veterans Group, a national nonprofit comprised of retired veterans that restores aircraft as part of its mission to serve veterans and their history.

There’s over 26 years of golf balls, tennis balls, soccer balls and footballs, we even found a Frisbee in the back of the plane.

Edwardsville Township Supervisor Frank Miles

To fund the project, the township created “Mission: Preservation,” a fund with the Edwardsville Community Foundation to allow residents to make tax-deductible contributions toward the project. They held fundraisers throughout 2016, raising nearly $20,000 by last fall. Miles said the project to restore the plane has been one of the top priorities of his administration.

The total project will be about $30,000, including restoration of the plane and sustainable landscaping in the plaza adjacent to it, according to Miles.

“While the National Naval Aviation Museum is not actively involved in the restoration process, we are aware of Edwardsville's endeavors to ensure proper restoration of the loaned aircraft through appropriate vendors,” said Lenore Taylor, spokeswoman for the National Naval Aviation Museum..

Keller Construction recently moved the plane off its support pylon to rest on the ground so it can be restored. It was full circle for Keller Construction; they were the company who originally placed the plane in the park in 1991, Miles said.

Close inspection also showed a few surprises. For one thing: the empty fuselage was full of sports balls.

“There’s over 26 years of golf balls, tennis balls, soccer balls and footballs; we even found a Frisbee in the back of the plane,” Miles said.

Over the years, either by accident or by dare, the kids of Edwardsville managed to get a surprising number of sports equipment inside the plane, never to be retrieved.

Unfortunately small animals and birds also found their way inside the plane, and the bird excrement is damaging to the metal. So Miles said one of the restoration tasks will be to install grating to prevent anything from finding its way inside in the future, intentional or not.

Another question answered: the “pilot” has a name. The mannequin who sits at the controls of the Corsair is female, and her name is Mabel.

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Mabel the Pilot sits on a stack of 1991 phone books in the cockpit of the Corsair at Airplane Park, which is what Edwardsville residents tend to call Robert Stille Township Park. The plane is undergoing restoration after 26 years on display in the park. Elizabeth Donald/BND

“We just kind of named her Mabel,” Miles said, laughing. When the plane was installed, women were not allowed to fly combat missions as they do now. So Mabel was ahead of her time, he said.

But since the ejection seat and vital electronics were removed, Mabel actually sits on a pile of telephone books.

The plane will be restored to its original colors and insignia, Miles said. Its restoration is the final step on a series of projects at Township Park, including an all-season restroom and electric vehicle charger powered by solar, electrical service and renovations to existing pavilions and bathrooms, resurfaced tennis courts and Wi-Fi available throughout the park, as well as two new playgrounds in recent years.

The process of restoring the plane will take about four to six weeks, after which the plane will be restored to its position on the pylon over the park. Miles said the township will hold a re-dedication ceremony on Veterans Day.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

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