For 25 years, a US Navy A-4 Skyhawk aircraft at the corner of Highway 101 and Long Prairie Road greeted travelers and residents en route to Tillamook, standing guard over the town.
Now the iconic “plane on a stick” is falling.
“It’s in pretty bad shape,” said Rita Welch, director of the Tillamook Air Museum. Welch has been advocating shooting down the plane for some years.
“It’s not sustainable and it doesn’t fit the mission of the museum,” she said. “We want to bring it indoors, clean it up, and put it on proper display where it can educate people about naval aircraft in the Vietnam War era.”
The A-4 Skyhawk was put on the stick in 1997 much to the dismay of the Navy, which owns the plane and several others in the museum. The Navy said that in order for it to remain on display outdoors, it must be painted to its specifications and properly maintained.
“The cost associated with maintaining it while it’s still on the stick is just too high,” Welch said, “whereas if it were inside the museum, we can display it properly, appease the navy and fulfill our mission of preservation and education.”
Originally, the Tillamook Bay Harbor Board of Commissioners considered replacing it with another aircraft, but Welch said the only reason the A-4 Skyhawk has lasted so long is because it’s of a metal navy plane. Replacing it with a civilian aircraft would risk deteriorating in a few years.
It was then that Welch floated the idea of replacing it with a 3D metal rendering of a K-class airship – a symbolic reminder of Tillamook Naval Air Station and its heritage as a WWII airship hangar. World War who served and protected the community.
Luckily, Welch knew who to talk to to get the ball rolling.
“I knew Tillamook Bay Community College had a welding program, and I thought, what a great project for them to work on,” she said. “It’s something that people will see for years when they come to Tillamook, and it will be something that these welding students have created and can be proud of. TBCC is a backdrop for this community and one of our other goals with this project was an opportunity to highlight the great work they do.
Ron Carlbom of TBCC’s Welding Technology faculty jumped at the idea. His students have been working steadily on making the metal rendering of an airship over the past few months and plan to have it finished by late spring.
“It’s a pretty big project for us,” Carlbom said. “It’s a fantastic feeling to get to work on something that will have such an impact on our community. It’s a wonderful city and it’s been really good for me, so it’s a way for me to give back. And at the same time, we show off a bit because we show the whole community that this is what our student welders are capable of.
Welch added that she was drawn to the idea of an airship because the museum is housed in one of the last World War II airship hangars in the country, and the only one open to the public. When completed, the airship will be 25 feet long and six feet in diameter.
Several Carlbom stick and mig welding students had worked on the airship project in some capacity over the past two years when Welch originally approached them with the idea.
“The plane is so iconic that replacing it with this airship is going to be very important,” said second-year welding student Morgan Waldhart.
Although the Port of Tillamook Bay is aware that there will be heartburn in the community over the landing of the plane, Port Commissioners agree that this is best for the plane and the museum.
“Pulling it down was not an easy decision,” said Tillamook Bay Harbor Commissioner Sierra Lauder. “It’s been on our radar for a long time, but the struggle has been to find something so iconic to replace it and there couldn’t be a better outcome than what we’ve put in place… And although we anticipated that the community may not be too enthusiastic about this decision, what we see instead is people who have some affiliation with the military coming forward and saying that they truly understand that the aircraft in its current location is not particularly respectful, so it’s nice to hear from these veterans who recognize that this decision is a way to actively honor this aircraft and its history.
“The first thing to keep in mind is that we are here for education and preservation,” Welch added. “So we choose to be the best possible stewards of the plane.”
Welch said the A-4 Skyhawk will be on display immediately after it fell while they refurbish it. “We’ve rehabilitated several aircraft at this point, so I’m confident we can do a good job internally that the Navy will enjoy,” she said. “And it will be exciting for people to see it up close for the first time.”
The project is partially funded by Visit Tillamook Coast.