An RF-4C Phantom II jet from Key Field returned to Meridian Monday after sitting more than 30 years in a graveyard in Arizona, completing more than four years of work by the East Mississippi Veterans Foundation to bring it home.
Jeff Summerlin, president of the foundation, said it was exciting to finally have the jet arrive back home after an effort that began in September 2018.
“I’m pretty excited and honored that it’s finally going to be here,” he said.
Moving the Phantom was full of challenges, Summerlin said, with the first being the cost. It took almost two years to raise the $70,000 needed to transport the jet from Arizona back to Meridian, with the fundraising complete in April 2020.
“When we reached that goal in April 2020, the pandemic kind of set in and we had to slow down the process, because just the whole world was hurting through that,” he said.
Finally, after finding a mover with time and ability to do the job, Summerlin said the aircraft has returned home.
“I think the community is getting excited about it,” he said. “I know this airplane being a part of the Air Guard unit here at Key Field, a lot of members that are still in the area, they’re getting super excited about it coming back too.”
Now that it has returned to Meridian, Summerlin said the jet will be reassembled — a process that will take 5-7 days — and placed on a pedestal, where it will serve as the gateway to the future East Mississippi Veterans Memorial Park.
“Meridian’s Jet will be displayed honoring the past and present men and women who have served with Meridian’s Air Guard unit since it was official established on Sept. 27, 1939,” he said in a statement June 7. “The jet will also stand in honor of all service members from all branches of service who served in the U. S. Armed Forces.”
The RF-4C Phantom was first delivered to the 186th Air National Guard Unit at Key Field on Sept. 21, 1979, where it was used as an unarmed photographic reconnaissance version of the U.S. Air Force’s F-4C Phantom. The jet remained in service at Key Field until it was retired on Sept. 9, 1991.
Summerlin said he plans to have the Phantom restored in the coming months as well as add a sidewalk, signage and landscaping for visitors and service members to view the aircraft as the first of four phases in the East Mississippi Veteran’s Memorial Park.
“We’re planning the static aircraft display area, which will be the airplane, and then we’re planning the Wall of Remembrance, which will be right next to it,” he said. “Then we’re going to have a Freedom Walkway and then the Pentagon Plaza.”
Meridian has strong ties to the military, with hundreds of veterans throughout East Mississippi having served at Key Field and NAS Meridian, Summerlin said. The park, he said, is a way to recognize and honor their serve to their country.
“If you look back, the Air Guard unit here at Key Field has been here since September 1939,” he said. “And then you had the Navy base come along in 1961, so the military is a big presence here in Meridian. You’ve got the Army National Guard here, and I think you’ve got even Naval reserve at the Navy base with the active Navy out there, so it’s a big part of Meridian community, both cultural and economic.”
More information about the park can be found at the East Mississippi Veterans Foundation website, emsvp.org, Summerlin said. There visitors can find detailed information about each of the phases of the park and how to get involved.
“Of course, with any project like this, that’s the key factor of us succeeding is people supporting it with their contributions and generosity,” he said. “Through that we can make this happen, become a reality of a full park.”
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