Growing up as a child in Spain, I remember watching every morning, like clockwork, F-4 Phantoms, from the 401st TFW at Torrejon Air Base, take off. It was something that we just got used to. This was a time when the F-4 was still a premier front line fighter. As I got older, so did the aircraft. By the mid 80’s, the F-4 was becoming a rarer and rarer sight. It was in 1986 when I photographed my first and last active Phantom. The only place that I would ever shoot one again would be in a museum. Thankfully, there is one flying today with the Collings Foundation which I haven’t yet had the privilege to photograph. The Phantom is an aircraft that is dear to many, and for one man in upstate New York it is a passion.
One day, one summer, one air show, in between the BBQ pork and T-shirt vendors, I saw something that was hard to miss. It was too big to miss, it was simply too beautiful to miss. Were my eyes deceiving me? Could it be mirage or a ghost or maybe just a phantom? In fact it was a Phantom. It was the cockpit section of the legendary fighter. Forget the military surplus tents and the deep fried Twinkies, this had my full and undivided attention.
What is a cockpit of an F-4 doing on wheels here in the middle of the carnival vendors? This thing should be front in center with the rest of the aircraft. Who does this belong to?
This cockpit belongs to David Garbe. David’s part time gig consists of hitching the trailer and traveling to airshows with his cockpit. For a nominal price, David (who is an accomplished photographer) will take your picture inside of the cockpit. Essentially, operating an aviation themed photo booth.
This isn’t an endorsement of David’s business. As a matter of fact, David doesn’t even need my endorsement. Once people see the cockpit, they gravitate toward it because, from the instruments inside the cockpit to the camouflage paint scheme, it is immaculate, pristine and complete. This is a museum grade cockpit.
David is a Phantom lover and has been since he first watched the video “Threshold, The Blue Angels Experience”. Since then and like many of us, he was hooked. David would read everything there was to read about phantoms and if there was a movie with the F-4, you could rest assured that David has watched it. Looking at pictures and videos of this aircraft was not enough. David needed to own one. That was when he began his eight year Journey. In 2006, David was finally able to acquire an F-4D fuselage from a Boneyard in Arizona.
Buying the aircraft remains was the easy part. David still had to find a way to transport the behemoth carcass to his home in New York. Once it was finally in his possession, David was able to begin the process of rebuilding the cockpit piece by piece, panel by panel, and instrument by instrument. When rebuilding a cockpit, one just can’t run down to the local auto store for parts. For spare parts, David purchased an F-4C on Ebay.
As a loyal “Phantomite”, David did his homework and researched the aircraft’s pedigree. This aircraft first flew in 1965 and last flew in service with the 307th TFS “Stingers” out of Homestead AFB Florida. This aircraft flew over the skies of Southeast Asia with the 555th TFS 432nd TRW out of Udorn Royal Thai Air Base from 1970-1972. The paint scheme chosen was a homage to this aircraft’s wartime past.
It has been a long road for David. And with the support of his family and some help of some friend, he has completed his show piece. Unlike flipping a house or restoring a classic car, there isn’t really market for restored cockpits, so I asked David,Why? The answer was twofold. The primary reason, is for the love of the aircraft. Why build a plywood mock up in your basement when you can rebuild the real McCoy.
The second reason is for the love of aviation. David has been known to take his cockpit to local schools and sharing his passion with children. David says that, the look on the children’s faces when they see the cockpit or sit inside is priceless. He states that if he is able to transmit the love of aviation to any child, then the journey was worth it. Also, when a Veteran sits in the cockpits… well, enough said!
I told David about my experience of seeing the F-4s take off every morning as I took the bus to school. Two by two with full afterburners. David looked at me in awe and made a confession, he has never seen Phantom fly. I am sure that the day David does see the F-4 in flight, the look on his face will be priceless.
There are more of these cockpits out there. Some are similar “photobooth” ventures while some are rebuilt and connected to flight simulator software. It is unfortunate that there isn’t a larger cockpit movement in the United States as there is in the UK. “Cockpitfests” are easier to organize and a cheaper alternative to airshows. I guess that may be because, to embark on an adventure of this nature, it takes dedication and passion. Something David has plenty of.
The air show season is about to begin and I am sure that David is polishing up his Phantom and getting ready to make a child smile. If you see him on the road, honk your horn and give him a thumbs up. If you see him at an air show, just gaze at his masterpiece and while you are there, tell him I said hello.
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