Ron Koplin was pushing the F-16 fighter plane up a steep climb when a disaster struck: the lights in the cockpit started flashing and it began to lose power.
“I hit the brakes but it wasn’t enough to hold me back, so I thought ‘Eject! Eject yourself! ‘ Koplin said.
But ejection wasn’t an option, as Koplin wasn’t actually flying an F-16 fighter jet miles above the earth. Instead, he drove a 14-foot-long mini F-16 powered by a golf cart engine up a steep hill during the Veterans Day Parade in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The hill turned out to be a bit too heavy for the batteries of the small jet, and it may have slipped downhill without a few spectators stepping in to push it out of the parade.
“Any show you watch on military planes where they lose engine power, that’s what went through my mind,” Koplin said.
It was the only malfunction in an otherwise unblemished service record of the mini F-16 operated by the Wisconsin Timmerman Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, a small but mighty flightless bird that caught the attention of thousands. visitors at parades, fairs and other events. across Wisconsin.
At a Veterans Day event, Koplin recalls, there was a long line of parents throughout the day who lined up with their children to take photos on the plane. Although the plane cannot fly, it serves as both a recruiting tool and a way to promote civilian air patrol in the community, explained Koplin, an Air Force veteran and the commander of the Air Force. Timmerman Squadron. An auxiliary component of the Air Force, the CAP is a civilian organization that not only provides emergency services in the form of search and rescue or other missions, but also provides aerospace education and leadership skills to children ages 12 to 18, Koplin said.
“You have kids from Illinois who see it and say they want to join CAP,” he said. “Or you’ll have former vets or former CAP cadets see it and start sharing stories. “
The mini F-16 itself is a long story short, albeit lacking in altitude. Koplin said the Air Force recruiting service made similar planes across the country as a recruiting tool in the 1980s. Originally, this may have been a fire hazard. : the plane was equipped with 11 horsepower gasoline engines which heated up and gave off gasoline and oil vapors.
“The Wisconsin recruiting commanders probably didn’t want anything that could catch fire with the recruiters across the way,” Koplin said.
Gasoline engines were eventually replaced by battery-powered electric motors, like those used in golf carts. There were originally 17 of these F-16s in Wisconsin, all painted in the red-white-and-blue livery of the Air Force Thunderbirds, the service’s first aerial demonstration team. But for some reason the birds fell out of use in Wisconsin, and Koplin finally found a donation four or five years ago, and he volunteered to take it back. However, it would take work: the fiberglass body and fenders were damaged and many components, such as lights and batteries, were missing.
“When we got the plane it was pretty much wrecked,” Koplin said.
But even in this state, the plane attracted a lot of attention. The captain said after picking up the F-16 for the first time, he stopped at a restaurant for lunch and left the bird in its trailer lying flat in the parking lot. When he reappeared from the restaurant, there was a crowd of about 10 people standing to take a picture of him.
“I was like ‘Boy, this is going to be a magnet,'” he said.
From there, the mini F-16 spent time in both CAP’s hangar and Koplin’s garage while being groomed. It became a real community project: The auto body class at nearby Waukesha County Technical College helped restore bodywork and paintwork, and new batteries were donated by Foreign War veterans and a local store called Batteries Plus. CPA members also donated or helped install the new tires, headlights, wiring, bearings and cockpit.
“We had nothing on this thing, no schematics,” Koplin said. “We just started to run away and did our first parade in Appleton about four years ago. “
Since then, there has been nothing else, although there have been a few literal bumps along the way. At one point, Koplin gave the plane a little too much throttle while crossing a series of bumpy train tracks on a parade in Appleton, and the suspension-less F-16 nearly threw him out of the cockpit.
“It was kind of like a race but I was having so much fun,” he said.
The mini F-16 is faster than it looks. It’s capable of going 35 miles an hour, and while it’s not quite the 1,500 miles an hour that an F-16 is capable of, it still packs a punch. At 35 mph, Koplin said he could start to feel lift on the wings. Don’t expect the 1,500-pound bird to take flight: the wings don’t have a lot of structure, so they’re more likely to tear directly from the fuselage, Koplin said. Still, the captain is hoping that one day he can get permission from the air traffic controllers at Timmerman Airport to descend full speed on the runway and see how fast it can go. They will need a lot of runway, because the plane was not quite designed to stop at high speed, he said.
“It was fun trying to figure this out,” Koplin said.
But even though it’s stationary, the mini F-16 has generated a lot of interest in the CAP program, which is great because it has a lot to offer. Cadets can learn a range of skills in areas such as first aid, wilderness survival, computer coding, rocket model making, leadership, aerospace science, and electronics. CAP also has an Air Force sponsored scholarship where cadets can obtain their private pilot’s license without the high price that most other civilians pay for this training. Koplin has seen his share of cadets go through CAP and continue to serve, whether in the military or emergency medicine, nursing, firefighting, and more.
In fact, at present one of Koplin’s former cadets is a US Air Force Academy graduate learning to fly B-52 bombers, two more are at West Point, another has just completed his basic military training for the Air Force, while another works on a nuclear submarine. in the Navy, but he always comes home to visit and fly to Wisconsin.
“These kids go on to great things and they come back to tell stories,” Koplin said. “It’s really cool to see these kids growing up, but I also hate that because it makes me feel old.”
Cadets can come and go, but the mini F-16 is still Koplin’s baby. He and his pal, William Vollbrecht, are leading the effort to keep the bird in great shape. “I have to say, hundreds of man hours went into this thing,” Koplin said.
The mini F-16 is not the only one in the country. There’s at least one like this in Wisconsin, and another was pictured in California, where an F-22 Raptor mini fighter was also spotted. The 122nd Indiana Air National Guard Fighter Wing also has a mini F-16, with a mini heads-up display and a mini Sidewinder missile on the wing tip.
Fighter jets aren’t the only small planes in the Air Force’s arsenal. Task & Purpose has previously written about the C-17 mini cargo jet at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, and a mini C-130 at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.
It’s hard not to let these little planes get into your heart. But the question with some of them is, how do you get out of it? The Wisconsin mini F-16 has plenty of cockpit legroom, but getting in and out takes a fair bit of effort, Koplin said.
“People are yelling at me ‘how do you get out’,” as he drives the F-16, he said. “I’m joking that we flip it over and shake it.”
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