Northlandia: The stories behind the display jets dotting Duluth
The 148th Fighter Wing sports an F-16 at its entrance, plus there’s a F-4 at Duluth International Airport, a F-101 along U.S. Highway 2 in Proctor, and a T-33 “Shooting Star” in West Duluth.
DULUTH — It was around 10 a.m. on Sept. 12, 1972, when Capt. Michael Mahaffey got a radar lock on a MiG-21 about 16,000 feet over North Vietnam. He fired a missile from his F-4D fighter jet, but there wasn’t time for a second: The first missile struck the MiG, causing it to spiral into the hills below.
The exact plane Mahaffey was flying then is now sitting quietly on a pedestal outside Duluth International Airport. Stripped of its internal wiring and other components, it’s one of four jets on display in the Duluth area.
“It was dedicated to the men and women of the 148th (Fighter Wing) for the years of flying that particular aircraft,” Ray Klosowski, a now-retired commander of the Duluth-based wing, said of the plane outside the airport.
He said he’s logged about 3,700 hours flying that model of plane and its predecessor, the RF-4C. Mahaffey’s former plane – “Aircraft 608” – ended up at the 148th in the 1980s before the Air Force replaced it and the other F-4Ds there with F-16s.
“It was on a five-minute scramble status,” Klosowski explained. “If there was an unknown in the U.S., kind of like this (Chinese spy) balloon, only we wouldn’t go after a balloon. It would get scrambled to go and look at it and see what it was.”
It was one of the last planes scheduled to head to an Air Force boneyard — the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group — in Tucson, Arizona, but was set aside for the airport display.
“It is amazing to realize some of the men and women of the 148th who worked on aircraft 608 and flew the mighty F-4 Phantom are still working on the Duluth base today,” Col. Chris Blomquist, the now-former commander of the 148th, said in 2020 to mark the 30th anniversary of the final F-4D flight at the wing .
The plane was later dedicated to Lt. Col. Jeff Dennis, a 148th airman whose F-16 crashed into the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Panama in 1991.
There are three other, similar jets on display in and around Duluth. Here’s how and why each came to be installed there.
The 148th Fighter Wing’s F-16
Duluth’s airbase has been flying F-16s since 1990.
“It’s gone to Iraq three times, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia. It’s done countless homeland defense missions. After Sept. 11, we flew the F-16s all over the Midwest and the national capitol region,” Audra Flanagan, the wing’s chief of public affairs, told the News Tribune. “We brought them to Howard Air Force Base, Panama, and did drug interception with those aircraft. It's just a real part of our history and represents our most recent culture.”
Like the jet installed outside the Duluth airport, the F-16 sitting outside the entrance to the air base was saved from the Tucson boneyard. The Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce’s Military Affairs Committee pushed to have it installed after the base’s entrance was reworked in the early 2000s. The jet was mounted outside the base in August 2011.
The exact jet installed there, though, never flew with the 148th.
“Unlike the F-4 at the airport that had a MiG kill in combat, this was just an early model F-16 that could be, essentially, gutted and displayed,” Flanagan explained. “That jet has no special missions tied to it. … It was simply available.”
The jet on a plinth adjacent to U.S. Highway 2 in Proctor is a memorial dedicated to Capt. James Verville and Capt. Sherman Gonyea, two Proctor airmen in the 148th who were killed in December 1971 when their F-101B’s engine failed as they took off from Duluth.
Hundreds of people watched as the winged memorial was erected on July 4, 1974.
“It was community inspired,” Jake Benson, a Proctor city council member and publisher of the Proctor Journal, told the News Tribune. “Tragic loss of two popular people in town. And because they were members of the 148th and there was a lot of their friends and colleagues who were also members of the 148th, it was just kind of a natural (fit).”
The plane’s swooping angle is designed to give the impression of flight. It’s the same model of jet that Gonyea and Verville died in, Benson said. Like the others, the Proctor jet was stripped out, but for many years afterward, its wing and tail lights were operational.
Verville graduated from Proctor High School in 1958. One of his three sons, Kurt Verville, is currently a chief master sergeant at the 148th.
The West Duluth American Legion’s T-33
The jet perched over the Legion’s parking lot is a replacement of sorts for one that the North Dakota Air National Guard asked for in 1996.
The guard, hoping to complete a museum collection in Fargo, asked for a F-94C Starfire plane that had sat in West Duluth’s Memorial Park since 1960. It was an easy sell. Trees had grown up around the jet, playground equipment had been built below it, and the plane itself had seen better days.
Duluth leaders asked for only one thing in return: a replacement.
The Tucson boneyard didn’t have anything, according to Keith Bischoff, an Air Force retiree and former longtime office manager at the West Duluth post. Even if it did, the Legion would have had to pay to ship the plane to Duluth.
“So all of those led up to, well, I guess we’re out of the airplane business, until we got the call from the Air National Guard and they said, ‘hey, we’ve got an airplane for you,’” Bischoff recalled. “They flew the T-33 trainer out of Duluth for many, many years, so it was not an unusual aircraft to display in that sense.”
The Legion’s T-33 has the 148th’s logo painted on it, as well as the name of two retirees: former wing commander Wayne Gatlin and Gene Telega, Gatlin’s longtime crew chief. Both were from West Duluth.