It took a small army to get a piece of naval aviation history ready for its next mission.
For the past two months, more than four dozen volunteers from the U.S. Navy Flight Deck Veterans Group worked steadily to restore an F-14 Tomcat fighter jet parked atop the World War II-era aircraft carrier Yorktown at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant.
Some of them traveled far and wide for the experience.
“People that have worked on this plane have come from North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Tennessee,” said Michael Deacon, the group’s national executive director of the Antioch, Tenn.-based group. “On and off, we’ve probably had 50 different people.”
Starting in March, the group stripped the retired jet down, fixed its corrosion, gave it a fresh coat of paint and applied new decals to bring it back to its original look.
The spruced-up aircraft will be unveiled at 1 p.m. Saturday at Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum.
“We thought it would take us a couple weeks,” Deacon said. “We’ve been working on it now for a little bit over two months.”
For Deacon and the other volunteers, the project brought back fond memories of their own military careers. Deacon, 59, who retired from the Navy 22 years ago, worked on F-14s during his time in the Navy.
“We’ve had people that have been retired longer than that, and they’ve come down here ... they start working on it,” he said. “It was flashback time. They knew exactly what they were doing.”
These Navy veterans don’t just restore planes — that’s only one facet of their volunteer work. During the holidays, they held a clothing and food drive in North Carolina and locally. They also assist other vets who are homeless.
Developed by Grumman Aircraft Corp., the F-14 joined the Navy fleet in 1972. The sweep-wing, twin-engine supersonic fighter was immortalized 14 years later in the hit film “Top Gun.”
The Navy stopped flying the F-14 in September 2006.
Deacon said the Tomcat was a formidable fighter. Its maximum speed was 1,544 miles per hour. It was equipped with technology that could track 24 missiles at once and identify the six most dangerous. And the weaponry on the F-14 was able to take out targets 100 miles away.
“To this day, there’s nothing that even comes close to it,” Deacon said.
The National Naval Aviation Museum loaned Patriots Point the F-14 in 1994.
The restoration project at Patriots Point started after some members of Deacon’s group saw the deteriorating condition of the plane during a tour of the museum in August. Deacon said they were “kind of shocked at the condition it was in.”
“It literally had holes in it,” he said.
Mac Burdette, executive director of Patriots Point, recalled his reaction to their offer to help give the plane a makeover.
“It was quite a surprise when they came to us and said, ‘This is what we’d like to do,’” he said.
Deacon said the project helped bring him back years.
“Getting back to my younger days and being able to work on these planes is a thrill,” he said.
The F-14 rehabilitation crew is going to take a break for the summer and then start work on another aircraft on the Yorktown, Deacon said. Other members of the Navy Flight Deck Veterans Group are working to make old military planes look new again in California, Texas and Florida.
“Right now, this is going to be the best-looking one,” Deacon said.
Reach Allison Prang at 843-937-5705 or follow her on Twitter @AllisonPrang.