A Fighter Goes to School
Its wings clipped, an F-15 comes to complete stop at technical center
The arrival at Haney Technical Center of a retired F-15 fighter jet will have resulted in part from the fact that Frank Stephens, the school’s director, grew up in the tiny Ohio town of South Zanesville.
Zanesville, home to the only Y-bridge in the United States, has that claim to fame — but out-of-the-way South Zanesville has none at all. Stephens was a country boy who learned at an early age to hunt, trap and harvest corn with a corn knife. His farmer grandfather taught him the art of blacksmithing, but upon graduating from high school in 1951, Stephens found that he was without a marketable skill.
He and six buddies would get together each afternoon to commiserate following another fruitless round of job campaigning until one day Stephens arrived for the bull session with unexpected news.
“I got me a job,” he announced to the group, “and you can have one, too, if you want one.” Greeted with puzzled looks, Stephens disclosed that he had joined the Air Force. Necessity had proved to be the mother of induction. Within a month, another member of the group followed Stephens’ lead, and the remaining five enlisted in the Navy. The Korean War was newly under way.
Stephens, who by his own admission never applied himself as a classroom student, thrived in the military. He rose through the ranks and eventually was entrusted with a key management and planning role that placed him in charge of about 40 percent of the Air Force budget. He would retire as a full colonel.
After leaving the Air Force, Stephens applied his well-honed logistical expertise to trade/industrial education in his home state. He demonstrated the value of technical magnet schools in bringing about integration through a means other than forced busing. And he developed from the ground up an aviation school at an airport in Cleveland.
Decades later, he would establish another highly credible, FAA-approved aviation program at Haney Technical in Panama City.
His route to North Florida had been improbable.
As an Air Force reservist, Stephens visited Tyndall Air Force Base and Bay County’s airport, then located in Panama City. Someone had left a copy of the Panama City News Herald, opened to the classified ads, on a bench at the airport. A help wanted ad sought candidates for the job of Apalachicola High School principal. Little did Stephens know that the ad had been running almost continuously for years.
Stephens, a bit whimsically, applied for the opening and got the job with unanimous school board approval. He would become the 15th AHS principal in 13 years and hold the job for six years before narrowly losing a race for Franklin County superintendent of schools.
“In Franklin County, you don’t get your old job back when you run unsuccessfully for superintendent,” Stephens explains. So he soon arrived at Haney as assistant director, his fondness for flying still very much in tow.
“We took a look at an aviation program at a high school in Okaloosa County and resolved to do better,” Stephens recalls. “The Okaloosa program wasn’t accredited by anyone. For ours, we wanted Federal Aviation Administration approval.”
Haney’s accredited program leads to air frame/power plant licenses. And jobs.
“We’re seeing a lot of students leave here with an A & P license and go directly to jobs with the big airlines,” Stephens notes. “Three just landed jobs with Delta in Texas. We have a student who went to work for Titan Air Industrial Repair and is now one of two employees there who does testing of refurbished engines with dynamometers.”
Fifty-six students, including Sean Draig and T.J. Fidler, are currently enrolled in the program. Contacted in December, both were excited about the much anticipated arrival at Haney of an intact F-15.
Draig, a Coast Guard reservist, once harbored a desire to fly F-15s, but acted upon it too late. He had aged out of eligibility for the Air Force’s officer program. Still, he’s given to curiosity about the plane and how it’s put together.
“It will be great to be able to learn on an F-15 and it will help draw people to our program,” Draig said. “We don’t have the rows of helicopters and Cessnas that they have at the Alabama Aviation Center (in Ozark) or Lively Technical Center (in Tallahassee). So, it will be good to have something no one else has.”
Haney was due in mid-January to become the only school with an operational F-15 (versus a shell on a pedestal) on campus.
“The publicity surrounding the F-15 will help sell the aviation program,” Fidler agreed. “If it had been in place at Haney a few years ago, I would have signed up a lot sooner.”
Stephens couldn’t conceal his excitement and a certain amount of pride, either.
Not long after he started at Haney, Stephens traveled to Eglin Air Force Base with an interest in acquiring surplus equipment including, ideally, an F-100 engine that propels the F-15.
“People with contracts and connections often get stuff that schools should get,” Stephens has found. “We should have priority, but sometimes we get steered away from getting what we need. With my Air Force background, I knew how to put pressure on in the right way. I knew I was going to hear a squeak come from somewhere.”
That squeak came from Tyndall. “How would you like to have the whole F-15 with the engines still in it?” the caller wanted to know and described how that might be possible.
Stephens was all in.
When an F-15 showed up on a surplus equipment list, Stephens made sure he was first in line with his bid. In March 2014, he learned that his bid had been successful.
Over three trimesters, Stephens and the Air Force worked to determine how best to deliver the $20 million baby to Haney. After some debate, towing the plane was thought better than trying to trailer it. Wing tips – three feet on each side – were to be removed along with the tops of vertical stabilizers. Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen got involved in soliciting cooperation from municipalities along the route from the base to the school. A Tyndall tug secured to the rear of the plane, it was agreed, would hang with the F-15 until it reached the westerly foot of the du Pont bridge.
This logistics list goes on and was thought complete until Air Force personnel expressed concern about tire wear, leading to a search for spares. (Not available at Pep Boys.) Then, a concern occurred to Stephens.
“I recognized there was no way the school could receive the plane until the gatling gun was removed,” Stephens said. “We looked into that and found that ammunition was still aboard the plane. Stripping the gun from the F-15 lightened its nose, so we had to tuck sandbags up there.”
All of this is to say nothing of paperwork hassles which required Stephens to call in a marker with a friend in the Pentagon to solve.
Will the struggles have been worth it? Stephens has no doubt.
Of the F-15, Stephens is a big fan.
“The F-15 has met the enemy 101 times in the air and 101 enemy airplanes have been shot down. Our loss rate, zero. In most airplanes, when you’re involved in a dogfight and start making maneuvers, you lose air speed. That’s when you get overtaken; that’s when you’re vulnerable. With the F-100s, the F-15 doesn’t lose speed. You make that turn and give it more power and the F-15 keeps right on going.”
And, as classes of Haney aviation students will discover, it doesn’t look bad even standing still.