ERIE, Pa. — The fighter jet is a local landmark.
The Korean War-era F-94 Starfire has been stationed along Interstate 90, in the veterans’ section of Erie County Memorial Gardens, for almost 50 years.
It’s a symbol of the men and women who served in the U.S. armed forces.
It’s also a symbol of the Summit Township cemetery.
“Everybody I talk to about the cemetery says, ‘That’s where the jet is,'” Erie County Memorial Gardens sales manager Joe Monaco said. “People from out of town come here to see it.”
But the aging landmark is deteriorating and in need of some TLC.
On loan from the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, the jet was brought to Erie County by Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 264 of Corry in 1959. But post members have been unable to care for the jet in recent years, post Commander Ron Craker said.
“We’ve been trying to find someone to take it on, and have had no response whatsoever,” Craker said.
By terms of the lease agreement with the Air Force, only another veterans’ organization or area government can take responsibility for the jet, Monaco said.
Still, the jet has been tended for the past 14 years by an Erie World War II and Korean War veteran who was distressed to see it deteriorating.
“I’d pass by the jet all the time, and it looked kind of sad there. It looked like it was going to disintegrate. It was in really bad shape,” said Robert Leise, 91.
With permission from the Air Force museum, Leise went to work.
“The first thing was to get all the bugs and bees and snakes out of it,” Leise said. “I had to work inside it for about a year. The metal was disintegrating. I had to plug all the holes up to finally get rid of the mice. After that I sprayed inside with insecticide.”
Leise painted the jet as needed through the years, with help only from his grandson, Steven Leise, and other family members.
“I went around to paint stores, and no one volunteered the paint. I called everybody I could find, and nobody donated. So I got my own money and bought the paint, which isn’t cheap. It’s a special paint. My grandson was seven years old when he started helping me, and he was a godsend,” Leise said.
Now troubled by vertigo, Leise no longer is able to care for the plane.
“We painted it two years ago and then touched it up, I guess last year,” Leise said. “I had to use a cane. My grandson went with me.”
Leise served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II and with the army in the Korean War.
“I just did my best, that’s all,” Leise said of his enlistment for the jet. “It was a labor of love.”
Monaco has taken up the battle to save the plane and has been contacting local governments and veterans’ organizations. So far, no one’s been willing to sponsor and maintain the jet, he said.
“There’s really not that much required,” Monaco said. “You have to have an insurance policy and a couple of other things. There’s really not much to it.”
Documenting the plane annually, in photographs sent to the Air Force museum, is also among lease requirements, Craker said.
The jet was made by Lockheed Aircraft in California and delivered to the Air Force, at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, in December 1953, according to information provided by the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
The plane was flown by the base’s 3550th Flying Training Wing, later the 3550th Combat Crew Training Wing. The jet also saw duty with the 96th, 27th and 101st Fighter-Interceptor squadrons and the 606th Consolidated Maintenance Squadron.
The jet never did duty with the Pennsylvania Air Guard. Leise said he painted the designation on the jet, in the organization’s honor, with permission from the Air Force.
The plane was listed as surplus equipment by the Air Force in April 1958. It came to Corry from Olmstead Air Force Base near Harrisburg in 1959 for display in front of the VFW’s former post home on Washington Street. When the VFW moved to a new location in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the plane was moved to Erie County Memorial Gardens, Craker said.
It may be transported back to the Air Force if no local government or veterans’ group takes charge of it, Monaco said.
“From what I’m told, they’d remove the wings and load it onto a truck,” he said.
Veterans or municipal officials interested in becoming caretakers of the jet can call the Corry VFW Post at 664-7150 or Erie County Memorial Gardens 864-3031 for information.
“It would be a shame to lose it,” Monaco said. “It’s become a fixture here. A lot of cemeteries have a cannon or even a tank, but how many of them have a jet?”
Chris Millette of the Erie Times-News contributed to this story.
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com