The iconic F86L SabreJet that has that has been a fixture for motorists along Interstate 55 at the Hazlehurst exit may be on its way to Louisiana.
Douglas DeCote, the founder of Louisiana Veterans for Justice, wants to refurbish the jet and add it the exhibits at the USS Kidd & Veteran’s Memorial in Baton Rouge, La.
“We’d like to strip the plane down, rebuild it and remark it,” said DeCote. “We have an A-7 on a pedestal representing the Navy, and we’d like to put this plane on a pedestal with it as representing the Air Force.
“It’s just wasting away where it is now.”
DeCote is just waiting for permission to move the jet — if anyone can figure out who owns the plane.
“We’re just waiting on the final word,” he said. “Apparently the VFW had it on loan from the Air Force, but those records no longer exist. Some say the VFW owns it, others says the Air Force owns it. I’m not going to make a move until I get the official word.”
“Hopefully we can get it moved by January.”
“We’ve had phone calls about the plane from all over the United States for years,” said Joe Woods, a former commander of the Hazlehurst VFW post. “But when they see all the paperwork that’s involved in obtaining the plane, most don’t call back.”
Attempts to reach the director of facilities management office of the Mississippi Army National Guard were unsuccessful.
The jet has been anchored the southwest part of the Exit 61 interchange since about 1968 when it was placed next to the new VFW office.
But the post closed about 10 years ago, and the building is in disrepair. The jet, meanwhile, has been beaten down by Mississippi weather and is poor condition. The pilot canopy is missing and the seats are deteriorating.
“There have been attempts to move it for years,” said Steve Amos, Hazlehurst Chancery Clerk and form VFW member. “But Tom Lowe always opposed it.”
Tom Lowe’s name appears on the side of the SabreJet as the crew chief, directly below the name of pilot Lt. Col. John Grassel. Both were Hazlehurst residents, but neither ever flew the plane, said Woods. “Their names were put on the plane when it was brought here,” he said.
Grassel was a 22-year Air Force veteran. But Lowe was the VFW commander who kept the Hazlehurst post alive as long as he did. Grassel died in 1998, Lowe died in 2011.
“Mr. Lowe kept the plane up,” said Amos.
When somebody shot out the cockpit, it was Lowe who made arrangements with a local glass company to fix it. That canopy now lies underneath the plane.
After Lowe’s death, finding the resources to keep the post active became even more difficult.
“I don’t know what will happen to the jet, but I do know the post is defunct, and that plane may have to be eventually turned into the military,” said VFW state adjutant Danny Williams. “We’re trying to revive the VFW chapter there. We’re talking to other chapters about merging, but I don’t think anyone wants to bring that building back to life. It needs a new roof and other repairs.
This SabreJet was built in 1953. Dimensions for a typical F86L indicate it is 40 feet long, 15 feet high and has a wingspan of almost 40 feet. Its top speed was almost 700 mph.
Versions of the F86 were used during the Korean War, but the history of this particular plane is not yet known.
“We’re still trying to get the history of the plane from the builders,” said DeCote. “More than likely, this plane remained stateside and was probably a training plane.”
DeCote wants the jet for the USS Kidd, a retired destroyer tucked between casinos north of Interstate 10 on the Mississippi River, partly because it is nearby. But he also cares about this particular plane.
“If someone with an equivalent organization came in and wanted to restore the plane and leave it Mississippi, I would support it,” he said
“I’ve seen that plan sitting there all my life, and I think it’s important to preserve it.
“There are a lot of F86 veterans who have seen that plane,” he said. “They would love to see it shining again in a location where they could take their children to see it.”