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Top Gun! Willmar gets its own F-14 fighter

WILLMAR -- The retired Navy F-14 Tomcat jet fighter -- parked for more than five years at a reserve military base at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport -- has "landed'' at Willmar Municipal Airport.

The fuselage was loaded Tuesday morning onto a specially designed trailer and transported by truckers Bryan and Patty Peirsol of Virginia Beach, Va., over a circuitous route early Wednesday morning.

The instruments and two engines were removed and will be returned to the military by the Peirsols.

The wings, two vertical fins and horizontal stabilizers were detached and delivered Tuesday by Dykema Trucking of Willmar.

Even with the flight control surfaces detached, the 22-foot-wide fuselage took up two driving lanes. The state of Minnesota required the load be transported between midnight and 5 a.m. and be escorted by the State Patrol.

The route selected by the state followed Interstate 94 to state Highway 23, then south to state Highway 9, then west to County Road 7 and south to U.S. Highway 12, and then east to state Highway 40 and west to the airport.

The fuselage was slowly lifted from the trailer at 7:45 a.m. by Willmar Crane Service operator Pat Schwab, swung around and placed on three concrete pads in the grass near the hangars.

Schwab said the jet was well-balanced by the rigging. Schwab said it was the first time he'd lifted an airplane in his more than 30 years of crane work.

A four-member crew from L3 Communications Titan Group of Virginia Beach guided the plane with ropes to a gentle landing. The crew immediately began to reattach the control surfaces.

Titan Group is contracted by the military to deliver military aircraft to airports and museums for static displays.

Rick Miller, Titan's day-to-day manager, said reassembly of all surface panels and the difficult center wing "bird cage'' should be completed by Friday afternoon if everything goes well.

"Cities are usually happy when we're done with them,'' said Miller.

F-14 aircraft were operational with the Navy since the early 1970s and were decommissioned by in Virginia Beach last September and replaced by the F/A-18F Hornet. According to Navy fact sheets, the Tomcat was used for fleet air defense, as a fighter escort and for tactical air reconnaissance and air-to-surface strikes.

"That was the premier fighter of its time, and that's a good aircraft to have out here as a static display,'' said Miller.

Watching the entire process was Pat Curry, a former Airport Commission member who led a private and public fundraising effort to bring the jet to Willmar. Curry was able to obtain a low-slung tow tractor and tow bar, which were used to move the planes on aircraft carriers.

Also, the seats for the pilot and navigator were kept in the aircraft rather than removed.

The jet will be washed and eventually placed on pedestals, he said.

"I am so thrilled,'' he said. "I said I'm not going to believe this is going to happen until I see it drive down the driveway of the airport.''