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Once capable of flying at more than twice the speed of sound, a retired U.S. Air Force F-111 Aardvark from the soon-to-be-shuttered Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum in downstate Rantoul can now only travel at the mercy of a flatbed truck — and only on local highways during the day.
Though its anticipated journey north was postponed more than once this week, the nearly 50-year-old warbird has been pegged for delivery to Waukegan National Airport, where boosters hope to put it on display as part of a Veterans Plaza in the facility’s welcome area.
Jim Hull, a local pilot and president of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Lake County Chapter 414, was in Rantoul this week helping a team pull the 32-foot wingspan and tail off the aircraft for overland transport. Eventually, two different flatbed trucks are scheduled to make what is normally a 165-mile trip, but they will not be able to go the way the crow flies.
“Under the Illinois trucking regulations, (it’s) considered a very wide load,” Hull said by phone Friday. “We have to have special permits to move it, and we’re only allowed to move it during daylight hours, or a half hour before sunrise and a half hour after sunset.
“And we have to use state routes, and we have to bypass Chicago, so we’re going to come in from the west on Route 173 to Green Bay Road,” he added. “We’re coming in by way of Rockford, so it’s going to be a very long trip.”
The venture actually began over the summer, when Hull was approached by Waukegan Port District officials who told him the Rantoul museum was set to close at the end of 2015, he said. According to Hull, many of the museum’s smaller exhibits were put up for adoption through an open-ended loan arrangement with the Air Force, which requires host agencies to maintain the equipment.
Eventually, officials were told that Waukegan would be fielding an F-111, an attack aircraft developed in the 1960s by General Dynamics for use as a fighter-bomber and strategic bomber, along with interdiction behind enemy lines. The Aardvark series entered service during the Vietnam War, flying more than 4,000 combat missions, and was a participant in various actions deep into the 1990s.
“It was in Vietnam, it was in Desert Storm, it was involved in the raid on Gaddafi’s headquarters,” said Hull, referring to the 1986 bombing of targets in Libya reportedly associated with Muammar Gaddafi. “It was also very active during the Cold War — the series aircraft, not this particular one — and it was really significant from the 1970s and ’80s and into the ’90s.
“So I thought this would make a really good centerpiece for a Veterans Memorial. There would be nothing like it anywhere around,” he added, saying that “we would put a really nice park of some sort around it with memorials to the various conflicts, so this would be so much more than a plane on a pole.”
The model destined for Waukegan is reported to be serial No. 2 of 563 manufactured before the Aardvark was retired in 1998. After initially being expected to arrive earlier this week, the dismantled aircraft is now targeted for delivery on Dec. 11, after which the Port District looks to raise around $100,000 in donations for its long-term display.
“We’ll kick off (fundraising) around the first of the year, once we get the airplane secured in the hangar,” Hull said. “We’re putting together a committee, and we want to contact all of the veterans groups in Lake County, and we’ll reach out to some of the schools and other organizations, to tell them what we’re doing and to get their input about what they would like to see in a veterans memorial.
“We’re kicking around a lot of ideas,” he added. “One of the things we’d like to offer is if people want somebody’s name on a plaque or a stone or something like that, we want to provide a way to memorialize individual veterans in the Lake County area or wherever. Depending on how much money we raise, that will determine the size of the memorial.”
In the meantime, plans call for the 72-foot-long, 48,000-pound Aardvark to be reassembled, which Hull admitted will be no small task in itself.
“This thing is a monster,” he said. “We’ve been taking photos and video of everything as we go along so we can figure out how to put it back together again.”