BROOKSVILLE — The T-34C circled over Central High School on a recent day, to the delight of the Navy Junior ROTC cadets gathered below. Now, the aircraft is on display — permanently — in front of the school, honoring the memory of one of the program's founding instructors.
The story began about eight years ago, four years after Lt. Col. Michael Ralph and Chief Wendell W. Dey established the school's award-winning ROTC program.
Ralph contacted National Naval Aviation in Pensacola, asking what the school needed to do to get an airplane. The school was added to the waiting list.
The majority of decommissioned aircraft, Ralph explained, go to museums or bases. "So we were not a high priority as a high school," he said.
The school's ROTC program was a rising star, though, so they hoped.
"Finally, this year, they offered us an F-14, an actual Navy warplane," Ralph said.
Unfortunately it had already been decommissioned, and the only way to get it to Central High was to ship it. But with a $60,000 price tag, that was not feasible.
Then Pensacola called back. The flight school was updating its training models and asked if Central would like a T-34C, an aircraft that has been used by the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard for training since the late 1970s.
Of course it did.
The airplane was flown to the Hernando County Airport, then decommissioned. Before landing, the airplane visited the school to give the cadets a look at it airborne.
The National Guard aviation unit at the airport allowed the airplane to stay in its care while the school prepared a proper place for it. A pad was built with donated materials and labor, accomplished through the organizational efforts of project manager Tim Carmichael of Associated Construction Products in Lutz.
Carmichael's interest in the ROTC program stemmed from having a son who graduated from Central and is now a Marine, two sons currently in the ROTC program and a daughter headed in that direction.
"And he was a Marine himself," Ralph said.
Carmichael spearheaded the construction of the pad and surrounding area, neatly finished with pavers and sod.
"It's been a real community effort," Ralph said. "And Mr. Carmichael was the lead. It was good."
Ralph hopes the community enjoys having the aircraft, too. It is plainly visible from Ken Austin Parkway, the road that runs in front of the school.
Cadet Capt. Kenneth Brown, 16, the ROTC unit's commanding officer, and second-in-command Hannah Edmisten, 17, both are pleased to have the airplane.
"It was really lucky that we got it," Brown said, explaining what "decommissioned" means.
"Things were removed, parts of the engine," he said. "They sealed all the doors. They sealed all the windows."
He said the students will care for the aircraft.
"We make sure it stays clean," he said, including the area around it.
The ROTC is required to take a photo of the plane each year to send to Pensacola, Master Chief Bruce Kennedy said.
"It's on loan on permanent display," he explained.
Edmisten echoed her classmates' enthusiasm.
"It's very exciting. It's such an honor to have a piece that was in the Navy to be here with us," she said.
Edmisten and Brown were both pleased that the airplane arrived before the current senior class graduated.
Those students were at the school when Dey was still with them.
Dey died in April 2010.
The T-34C was dedicated to the beloved instructor on June 1, and cadets from years past came back for the ceremony, Edmisten said.
"We had probably 400 or 500 cadets and their families here," Ralph said. "It was a real heart-warming event to have them all come here."
There is a plaque at the display in Dey's honor.
In loving memory of Chief Wendell W. Dey, USN (Ret.)
Beloved teacher, mentor, counselor, and coach
April 3, 1957 — April 14, 2010.