By Savanah Bandy
The legendary F-4 Phantom is often referred to as the most feared jet of both the Cold War and the Vietnam War. The Phantom had top speeds more than twice the speed of sound and served on the front line of more Western air forces than any other jet over the course of its production from 1958 to 1981. The Israelis’ nickname for this jet is the Sledgehammer.
Today, 71-0247, also known as 71-1247, one of those legendary jets, is on display at 64377 East 290th Road in Grove, Oklahoma. Visitors come to stand in awe of the supersonic jet thanks to the hard work of Pete Norwood, Dave and Beverly Helms, the City of Grove, the Grove American Legion, and the gracious support of donors in the community.
Pete Norwood and Dave Helms both served in the Air Force. Pete joined in 1973 and served for 20 years. Pete piloted the F-4 Phantom and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. He then served as a pilot for U.S. Airways before retiring after the attacks September 11, 2001. He returned to his hometown of Grove and purchased Honey Creek Marina.
Dave Helms joined the Air Force in 1970 and worked as an airframe structural repairman in Alaska. It was during his time working in a structural repair shop he became interested in building and fabricating prosthetic limbs for injured veterans. He left the service in 1974 to attend Prosthetics and Orthotics School in New Orleans, Louisiana. Dave and Beverly moved to Grove in 1996 and opened Grand Prosthetics and Orthotics LightWeight Artificial Limbs and Braces.
Although they both served in the Cold War with the 21st Tactical Air Command providing top cover at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Pete and Dave met in Grove and bonded over their past Air Force F-4 service. They began attending PhanCon reunions around the nation together. It was at one of these meetups in New Mexico they met a man who can only be described as “a guardian angel.”
“We happened to sit next to an acquisitions procurement officer who had an F-4 to be awarded to a community who could prove their commitment to care for it,” Pete said. “We let him know we were interested in acquiring an F-4 for the city of Grove, so we struck up a friendship between him, myself and the Helmses. He connected us with the OK GSAXcess Compliance Officer who then had to submit our application into the competitive award process.”
For the next 2 years, Pete, Dave and Beverly Helms, and lots of volunteers worked closely with that gentleman to procure the airplane on behalf of the City of Grove. The Helms’ Grand Prosthetics office became the unofficial headquarters for all things F-4.
“I fit a lot of orthopedic and diabetic shoes on veterans, and when the veterans realized we were working on this F-4, I truly realized the importance of bringing the jet to the city,” Beverly said. “I’ll never forget one veteran. His eyes filled like swimming pools, and he said, ‘When I was on the field of battle and I knew that I was surrounded by the enemy and was facing certain death, suddenly in the far distance I heard the whistle of the F-4 – it has an iconic sound – and as it drew nearer and unloaded its payload, it cleared my path to freedom. And I knew my life had been spared.’”
The City of Grove gave the group permission to display the jet in the city but did not put up any funds for the project.
“We started collecting donations from citizens, casinos, banks and local businesses. This was not just us – it was a community-wide effort,” Dave said.
In 2015, things really started to move. Ferra Aerospace agreed to donate an acre of land to the City of Grove specifically to display the F-4 jet. The next hurdle was transporting it from Alamogordo, New Mexico, to Grove, Oklahoma. The group was hard at work again procuring donations to pay for the $45,000 disassembly, transportation and reassembly.
“Along the way, many of these donations came to us with money in hand and a tear in their eye,” Dave said. “These were veterans who had seen the jet save their life once or twice.”
An official dedication ceremony was held September 15, 2020.
Today, the F-4 Phantom in Grove receives many visitors each week. The Phantom’s display is low, so people can touch it. Touching the F-4 jet is therapeutic for veterans whose lives were saved by it. It’s a way for them to say thank you.
The jet and surrounding displays have been renamed The American Legion Freedom Park. Lee Cathey, Grove American Legion 178 Commander, and Otto Maynard, an F-4 pilot and former president of Wolf Creek Nuclear Plant, thankfully now head up care and maintenance of the F-4 display.
“The F-4 being here is not the effort of one person,” Pete said. “No one person carried the ball from beginning to end. It’s a complex story, but I’m sure glad it all happened the way it did.”
Where to view the F-4 Phantom Fighter Jet
The American Legion
64377 E. 290th Rd.
Grove, Oklahoma 74344
Facebook: F-4 Phantom Grove Community Foundation
See more photos in the July 2022 print edition.