Park showcases local aviation history

By Emily Ulber

In June 2004, more than 30 years after Dan Cherry shot down a North Vietnamese MiG-21 as an Air Force fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, he and some friends were visiting the Air Force museum in Dayton, Ohio.

One of the staffers told the group there was a plane of historical significance to Kentucky not far from the museum.

“As the conversation continued, it finally dawned on me that it was my airplane,” Cherry said. “It was [the Phantom] 550, the one I was flying the day I shot the MiG down.”

Cherry and his friends visited the plane after they left, and found it in a neglected state, with flat tires, covered in bird droppings, and with grass growing up around it.

“All the way home, all we could talk about was what we were going to do to save the airplane,” he said. “After we got back here and got a few more people involved, the idea got bigger, and that’s when this idea of an educational facility to inspire and motivate youth came up.”

The Phantom 550 became the first plane on display at Aviation Heritage Park, located on the corner of Three Springs and Smallhouse Roads at Basil Griffin Park.

“Kentucky has a rich heritage — south-central Kentucky in particular — in the field of aviation,” Cherry said. “But the problem is, so many of these stories of aviators from the past that have roots here — these stories have died.”

And that means many people across the region are not aware of Kentucky aviators’ roles in some of the nation’s most historic events, or of their ties to WKU.

Victor Strahm, for example, was a fighter pilot during World War I. His father was the director of music at WKU during that time.

“He went on to be a very famous aviator, promoted to brigadier general, and was one of the early, early aviators in the old fabric-covered bi-wing airplanes of the day,” Cherry said. “He had a very remarkable career and yet, very few people are aware of that.”

Strahm was Kentucky’s first WWI Flying Ace and shot down at least six enemy aircraft, according to information on the Aviation Heritage Park website.

There’s also Johnny Magda, who came to WKU on a football scholarship. He graduated in 1940 and went on to join the Navy during World War II, according to the website. He was named commander of the Navy’s Blue Angels — their flight exhibition team — in 1950.

Magda and his team volunteered to go to the Korean War together, Cherry said. He was killed in action in Korea in March of 1951 and was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism, according to the website.

“We think if we use aviation artifacts to tell these stories, and to be the attention-getter for young people, we can keep these stories current,” Cherry said.

He said the exhibit should help kids realize that such accomplishments were not made by “mythical characters from somewhere else.”

“We’re an aviation museum, but we go find the story first — the remarkable, usually untold story of someone, a real person who has a real connection to Bowling Green, WKU, Warren County, south-central Kentucky,” he said. “Then we go find the aviation artifacts to support the story.”

Visitors to the park can see a restored Grumman F9F Panther, a representation of the plane Magda flew as a Blue Angel. The park also recently unveiled a T-33 Shooting Star – which will go on display in September – to honor General Russell Dougherty, who grew up in Glasgow, graduated from WKU, and went on to become the commander of Strategic Air Command during the height of the Cold War.

Those planes, along with the Phantom 550, make up the park’s current collection. They have room for seven total, and will soon be getting an aircraft to represent Terry Wilcutt, a WKU grad who became an astronaut for NASA in 1991.

Most aviation museums have barriers to keep people from getting too close to the aircraft, Cherry said. But at Aviation Heritage Park, visitors have free reign.

“We made a conscious decision to keep it open,” he said. “If people want to walk up to it and touch it, they can do that. It’s not every day that anyone can get that close to a fighter airplane and really get a sense of how they’re made and sort of imagine in your mind what the pilot went through when he was flying it.”

Visitors can leave the park with newfound knowledge of south-central Kentucky’s aviation heritage, Cherry said.

“We’re not a big community,” he said. “We don’t have a huge airport or anything like that, and we don’t have any aviation industry that’s close by, but boy, we have some really good aviators who have grown up here, and that’s something we don’t want to die in history.”

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