Craven County’s Historic Aircraft

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North Carolina’s Craven County is home to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, and rich in aviation history. In particular, Havelock – the city where the air base is located, has close ties to military flight activity, and a number of restored military aircraft.

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The city’s crest, and those of the police and fire departments, even contains a silhouette of a Marine Corps AV-8 Harrier.

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A few miles north of Havelock is a larger city, New Bern. There are a pair of former military jets on display there too, echoing the military aviation heritage found in the county. On the eastern side of New Bern, in Lawson Creek Park, a former Navy Grumman F-11A Tiger is mounted on a pedestal. Presented to the city in 1973 by the MCAS Cherry Point commander in appreciation for the area’s support of the base, it originally went on display in another part of the city in white and red training colors. In 2009 it was ordered to be restored (or it would be moved away) after years of enduring the ravages of North Carolina’s weather, at the request of its owner, the National Museum of Naval Aviation. A partnership between the Swiss Bear Downtown Development Corporation and the city spearheaded the effort, and soon the aircraft was transported to MCAS Cherry Point’s Fleet Readiness Center-East aircraft repair facility for restoration by military specialists and local volunteers. It returned for display in 2011, painted in Blue Angels colors. During its flying career in 1966, this very airframe arrived at the Marines’ Overhaul and Repair Department at MCAS Cherry Point, for transition to the Blue Angels team in 1967. Then-Lieutenant Norm Gandia, Blue Angel #5 during that 1967 season, flew this aircraft (#141802) while a team member, and had written the MCAS base commander, lobbying to have “his” former aircraft renovated in a more proper scheme. It now carries Gandia’s name under the canopy rail, and his number 5 on the tail.

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At New Bern’s Coastal Carolina Regional Airport, there is a Hawker Siddeley AV-8A Harrier mounted on a pedestal. This is the original Harrier version that the Marines began flying in the early 1970s, and retired by the mid-1980s. After initial use, the Marines began upgraded their Harriers to the AV-8C version, with improvements in performance and airframe life. This is a rare, unmodified aircraft. DSC_3283

In Havelock, at the main entrance to the Marine Corps Air Station, an early AV-8B Harrier II stands on guard, with the words “PARDON OUR NOISE – It’s the sound of freedom” on a wall behind it. It wears the colors of VMA-331 “Bumblebees”, last based at Cherry Point before their deactivation in 1992.

Aboard the base, and not easily accessible to the general public, sit an EA-6B Prowler, an HH-46 “Pedro” Sea Knight Search and Rescue helicopter, and an EA-6A Electric Intruder too.

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Near the base’s main entrance sits a treasure trove of Marine Corps aviation history. At the Havelock Tourist Center, a small but power-packed museum awaits. The building sits at the end of a cul-du-sac, and sports an attractively painted VMA(AW)-533 Grumman A-6E Intruder sitting on the street corner. The Hawks flew the Intruder from MCAS Beaufort from 1965 through mid-1992.

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In front of the building are three more former Marine aviation airframes… a McDonnell Douglas RF-4B Phantom in local VMCJ-2 colors, a Boeing Vertol HH-46D Sea Knight in search and rescue colors from MCAS Beaufort, and a Douglas A-4M Skyhawk in high-visibility colors of VMA-131 “Diamondbacks”.

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Inside the building is a small tourist information area and local history displays. Settled by the Neusiok Indians, the Cherry Point/Havelock area soon became important for U. S. settlers harvesting lumber and associated products, as railroads made their way to the eastern Carolinas.

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The area remained relatively quiet until, in 1940, large scale plans for a military airport were put into motion, and a “colossal building program” got under way just prior to World War II. The future Marine Corps Air Station would be used for training and aircraft maintenance, with over 300 aircraft based there during the War. This would cause the local population to swell from a few thousand to ten times that amount in a short period of time too. The base is still a very important part of Marine aviation today, and its ties with the local community run deep.

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A large, interesting display (at least to an aviation buff) with models of almost every Marine Corps plane to fly in the Cherry Point area are along the walls. Among interesting artifacts on display are a recently restored set of QF-4 Phantom ejection seats as well as a radar from an F-4 Phantom, and an engine from an AV-8 Harrier.

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Inside a medium-sized meeting room adjacent to the main hall are a pair of Marine aircraft hanging from its ceiling… from the 1930s is a Boeing F4B-3 biplane fighter on loan from the United States Marine Corps Museum of Quantico VA, and an IAI RQ-2 Pioneer unmanned air vehicle, a type formerly used by MCAS Cherry Point-based VMU-2.

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While visiting the Tourist Center during a mid-week morning, there was a steady stream of visitors, all of whom had interesting stories to tell. A group from Concord California’s Vietnam Helicopters organization was wrapping up loading spare parts to “Pedro”, a retired MCAS Cherry Point HH-46D rescue helicopter, onto their truck. The helicopter, which had begun its cross country ferry flight from the Cherry Point Air Station to the west coast just hours earlier that day, would be followed by its ground crew by land. How was the trip, and how many stops did it require? That’s another story, and one we can hopefully bring you in the future….

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We talked at length with retired Master Gunnery Sergeant Richard Hazlett, the curator for the museum. From the museum’s history (there were once plans for a larger museum – that weren’t followed through with), to some stories from his active duty service days (he was the crew chief on an OV-10 Bronco that established a cross-country endurance record from Washington State to Florida non-stop), his stories were fascinating to listen to. I had heard that Marine Master Gunnery Sergeants can do anything, and he proved it as he hoisted one of the museum’s aircraft bombs effortlessly (albeit a well-made replica!). Craven County can rightfully boast of a rich military aviation past and present, and is home to some military veterans who seem happy to share many interesting stories and experiences from their past. The County boasts some quality hardware to back their stories up too!
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