12/29/06 — 21 4th Fighter Wing jets will fly in tribute to Ford

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21 4th Fighter Wing jets will fly in tribute to Ford

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 29, 2006 1:53 PM

When former President Gerald Ford is laid to rest in his home state next week, members of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's 4th Fighter Wing will be among those present to pay their respects.

Dozens of airmen will be in the skies over Grand Rapids, Mich., Wednesday, as F-15E Strike Eagles have been requested to perform a 21-ship flyover and a missing-man formation tribute in honor of the late president during the funeral service.

"For us, it is a tremendous and profound honor," Wing Comman-der Col. Steve Kwast said. "The commander in chief is a symbol of what we do and why we serve our nation."

Preparations are already under way on base and this weekend, airmen from across the wing will come together to make certain the former president is honored the way any great leader should be, he added.

The nose of each Strike Eagle will be handpainted with a tribute to Ford, maintainers will make sure the aircraft are ready to fly and aircrews will practice the formation until they get it just right.

When the finished product is finally revealed and the eagles soar across the skies over Grand Rapids Wednesday, there won't likely be a dry eye on the ground or in the sky, Kwast said. And that is the way it should be.

"The reason it's so touching and strikes at the heart and soul of those watching is because it's an analogy for all of us," he said. "When we die, our spirits are lifted to a better place."

Ford, who died Tuesday at age 93, was the 38th president and has military ties that extend back to his days as an officer in the Navy.

This is not the first time Seymour F-15s have taken part in a state funeral. In June 2004, a similar fleet flew over the funeral procession of former President Ronald Reagan.

Kwast said he and the other men and women at Seymour were "humbled" by the news their services had been requested to honor "another great leader."

"It has meaning on several levels," he said. "The nation could have chosen any wing to do this and the fact that they chose us is a real honor -- not only for the people here at Seymour Johnson, but for the whole community, Wayne County, North Carolina and Goldsboro."

Kwast has attended state funerals before and seen military flybys. Even a fighter pilot gets choked up at the sight of an F-15 -- symbolic of the soul -- climbing toward the heavens, he said.

"It is a very visceral and emotional event," Kwast said. "There will never be a time when I don't get chills and have a tear in my eye when a flyby happens."

Ford will lie in state in the U.S. Capitol this weekend before his interment in a tomb near his presidential museum in Grand Rapids, where he lived as a child.