A smattering of former National Guardsmen lined a fence at the U.S. Army National Guard armory at the Barrow County Airport under a hot bright sun Wednesday afternoon, a reunion of sorts still waiting for its guest of honor.
A little after 12:30, a low drone emerged from the general clatter of cicadas, heralding the return of another veteran.
"For all us guys who spent 20-some years in it, it's like your child coming home," said Ronnie Fouts of Flowery Branch, who was once stationed in Winder.
The child coming home was actually almost 50 years old. An OV-1 Mohawk, a Cold War-era surveillance and light attack twin-propeller plane, flew over the airfield and its nostalgic visitors before sweeping down runway 2-3. It taxied to the National Guard hangar, where a pickup truck pulled it inside with a dolly.
This Mohawk in particular spent part of its life stationed in Winder, along with at least 20 others like it, with the 158th Aviation Company until it was taken out of service in 1985. Besides Winder, Mohawks were stationed at Fort Dobbins outside Atlanta and at Fort Hunter near Savannah.
"Georgia at one time had more Mohawks in its inventory than anywhere else," said Ed Bearden, a former Guardsman and president of the newly formed Georgia Army National Guard Aviation Museum. "At one point in time there were about 50 Mohawks flying over the state of Georgia."
"It's great to have it back," said Hal Kerkhoff, a retired National Guard colonel. "It's our ancient history, for the Vietnam-era guys."
The 631, known by the last three digits of its serial number, was about to be dismantled, its engines sold to be mounted on a boat. IDT Corp., a contractor that works with several governments, had the plane in Rockford, Ill., ready to be dismantled.
"One of owners or officers of the corporation, he flew with me up to Illinois where they were going to take the engines off and part out rest of airplane," Bearden said. "On way up there I convinced him those engines would not fit on the boat, because it has been tried before and they're too small. He said, ‘Can you find the right engines for me?' I said, ‘No but I know someone who can.'"
Bearden called Ken Foote, owner and vice president of Transupport Inc., an engine parts and support company based in Merrimack, N.H. Foote said Wednesday he was able to find the right engines for IDT's project and negotiated ownership of the Mohawk into the price.
The new Georgia aviation museum could not afford to pay for the plane, which was listed by Courtesy Aircraft Sales of Rockford at $139,000. So Foote agreed to a permanent loan arrangement to allow the Mohawk to be displayed in Winder.
"Quote-unquote, if you find it a home, it's yours," Bearden said of his conversation with Foote. "The museum was founded with the purpose of having a home for that aircraft."
After the deal was done, Bearden and Foote hopped into the Mohawk in Rockford and flew to Dobbins for a short ceremony before bringing it home to Winder.
According to a press release from the museum, the U.S. Army accepted the 631 in October of 1962 and immediately sent it to the 503rd Aviation Battalion of the 3rd Armored Division in West Germany. It came to Winder 10 years later.
Bearden said the museum was looking at other aircraft for its displays, including another not-so-airworthy Mohawk, a UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, known generally as a Huey, and an O-1 Bird Dog. Those may take some time to secure, though.
"We have to get some more legal stuff done so we can get these aircraft released to us," Bearden said. "Anything ex-military you have to go through a lot of hoops."
The Georgia Army National Guard Aviation Museum will be based in Winder. It was formed last month and already has 50 members. Bearden said dues are $30, and the museum has applied for nonprofit status.
Other former Winder Guardsmen sit as the museum's officers, including Cliff McKeithan, on the Board of Directors, John Towler, historian and secretary, and Fred Christian, treasurer.
The Mohawk is currently in the National Guard's main hangar, though it will have to move when the unit based in Winder returns from Afghanistan, Bearden said. He hopes the museum can use a nearby hangar to display the aircraft and other National Guard Items.
"The whole idea of the museum is to educate children and residents in the area as to the contributions of Georgia Guard aviation over all the years," Bearden said.