If anyone driving southbound on Interstate 5 in Chehalis this week was worried when they saw the Veterans Memorial Museum’s jet painted gray, they can take a sigh of relief.
The jet is currently being restored, and by good hands: the same ones that have restored pieces from the Titanic and Martin Luther King Jr.’s leather-bound Bible before it was used in the swearing-in ceremony for former President Barack Obama. The aircraft’s camouflage was being repainted Friday morning.
After the museum board’s hesitancy to restore the aircraft due to cost, the F-105 Preservation Society told the museum it would go in for half of the price. Gordon Ponsford, of Ponsford Ltd., was hired for the job. The grand total, according to a previous column in The Chronicle by Julie McDonald, is $25,000.
Ponsford was born in Spokane and raised in England. His 45-year career in restoration has taken him all over, including to Arlington National Cemetery, where he was a conservator for over 20 years.
At first, Veterans Memorial Museum Director Chip Duncan was worried about maintaining authenticity in restoration.
“But Gordon's professionalism thoroughly convinced me,” Duncan said.
The Republic F-105 Thunderchief was first created during the Cold War. Capable of going faster than Mach 2 (1534.54 miles per hour), the supersonic jet was built with a bomb bay large enough to accommodate a nuclear weapon.
Because of its build, it was not ideal for “dogfighting” or close-range aerial combat. As Duncan puts it, “it has the turning radius of an aircraft carrier.”
When the United States entered Vietnam in 1965, the F-105 was used as a fighter-bomber. There were about 900 of the aircraft originally built, and nearly half were shot down in that war. Thus, crews of the F-105 shortened its nickname from “Thunderchief” to “Thud,” for the sound it made when hitting the ground.
The F-105 was also involved in the “Wild Weasel” program. Essentially, Duncan said, that program was like “fishing with live people.” The jet would fly near suspected enemy locations, then, when a surface-to-air missile truck on the ground fired at the F-105 or used certain methods of locating the aircraft, enemy locations were revealed.
“The board of directors, when we were deciding what kind of aircraft we wanted to have on display outside, we felt like an F-105 would be unique … it’s not a jet everybody recognizes immediately,” Duncan said.
It would have been easy to get a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, the F-105’s successor, but that’s exactly why the board didn’t want one.
Alongside the uniqueness of the model, the particular specimen the board obtained has a rich history. The 2018 museum addition is named the “Desert Fox” and is the last known F-105 to ever take flight. Its paint was one of two experimental desert camouflages.
The aircraft was on display at Travis Air Force Base from its retirement in 1984 until its move to Chehalis in 2018. After that long in the California sun, the color has faded significantly. But by the end of the weekend, the Desert Fox will be fully re-painted, weather permitting.
“It takes us about two weeks to do them. It was nice, we had a couple of volunteers come by that were vets. They want to put their hands back on these planes, and their way of doing it is volunteering. And we’ve had those guys at different locations,” Ponsford said.
To see the soon-to-be restored jet, visit the museum at 100 SW Veterans Way, Chehalis.