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Panther Leaves Winona

Plane once in park leaves town

01/09/2008
By Cynthya Porter, Winona Post

Crews dismantled this Korean War relic Tuesday to move it from Winona’s Max Conrad Field to a new aviation museum in Kentucky.

It’s bye, bye war birdie for Winona, with its longtime resident fighter plane headed for warmer locales.

On Tuesday, a crew from All Coast Aircraft Recovery had the partially dismantled plane on the Max Conrad Field tarmac as it worked to dislodge pins and bolts that have been in place for 50 years.

According to ACAR owner Chuck Mosely, the fighter jet is headed for restoration and a spot at Aviation Heritage Park in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

In recent years, the blue relic sat on display in a grassy area at Max Conrad Field. But before that, it was an attraction at Lake Park after being taken out of service by the Navy in the late 1950s.

When the Grumman F9F-5 Panther rolled off the production line in 1952, it was one of the sleekest, fastest planes serving in the Korean War.

Produced en masse for the Navy, the lithe fighter could fly 575 miles per hour, be refueled in the air and land on a dime, or better yet the back of an aircraft carrier. With four 20-millimeter cannons and the ability to carry bombs, historians say Panthers were the backbone of the Navy’s carrier-based ground attack capabilities in Korea.

By late the same decade, the Navy began decommissioning the planes in favor of newer technology, and Panthers ended up on display in towns, museums and parks all over the country.

But the loan program was just that, with the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida, retaining ultimate ownership of the aircraft on display.

Unlike the Air Force and Army, both of whom abdicated their rights to planes crashed or disabled before 1962, the Navy made it clear that every plane that ever belonged to the Navy still does. “Even if it’s crashed at the bottom of the ocean, it belongs to the Navy,” Mosely said.

Each year, Navy officials survey the locations of loaned planes as well as the reports that borrowers must submit about the plane’s condition and their efforts to maintain it.

Mosely said there are a large number of applicants hoping for a plane to display, and officials occasionally reassign leases for the surplus equipment if it can find a better home elsewhere.

For municipalities, Mosely said, caring for the display aircraft can become a drain to local budgets.

Moved out of Lake Park as an attraction that children used to play on because of safety concerns at city hall, the plane had seen little interest in recent years and Winona expressed a willingness to give the plane a new home, Mosely said.

Navy officials in Pensacola began searching through applications for just the right place.

The spot they chose, Aviation Heritage Park, is a new venture that will eventually house a variety of military aircraft including Winona’s Panther and an Air Force Phantom, both of which will be restored by a local committee there.