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Tri-Cities

Pilot shortage in Farmington? ARC Thrift Store comes to the rescue

Donated mannequin will replace ‘retired’ pilot
After 30 years of service at Farmington’s Four Corners Regional Airport, the “pilot” of the U.S. Air Force A-7 D Corsair that stands at the airport’s entrance fell apart and was retired and replaced. (Brad Ryan/Special to the Tri-City Record)

There is a pilot shortage in North America, and the trend is expected to get worse as pilot retirements skyrocket in the next five years, according to a news release from the Regional Airlines Association.

“Retirements will then stay at or near peak for more than a decade,” the association stated in its news release.

At Farmington’s Four Corners Regional Airport, a longtime pilot literally fell apart after 30 years of service.

Seated in the U.S. Air Force A-7 D Corsair that stands at the airport’s entrance next to the New Mexico National Guard building, the mannequin pilot has sat in “silent vigil during cold winters and hot summers, being locked in the plexiglass-covered cockpit,” Airport Manager Mike Lewis said.

“The once sharp-looking pilot now in serious decay was carefully removed” and retired, said Lewis, just like his colleagues who are reaching mandatory retirement age in vast numbers.

The story of the Corsair’s pilot dates to 1993, when former Farmington City Councilman William Hall and former Mayor Tom Taylor petitioned to the U.S. Air Force to bring a “suitable aircraft” to Farmington to “honor our servicemen and women in our community,” Lewis said.

The Corsair, which flew missions in Vietnam with the U.S. Air Force 355th TFW, arrived in Farmington in 1994, Lewis said, adding “The cockpit of this aircraft was outfitted with a pilot sitting under the canopy as it did during many of its years of glorious service.”

The U.S. Air Force A-7 D Corsair at Farmington’s Four Corners Regional Airport arrived in 1994. (Brad Ryan/Special to the Tri-City Record)

The pilot, a mannequin, could have represented the three Vietnam-era pilots, who flew the Corsair and were awarded the Medal of Honor, according to Lewis. He also could have represented the members of the Ohio National Guard’s 162nd and 112th Tactical Fighter Wings, who flew the plane until 1989.

Those who brought it here hoped it would represent those from Four Corners, who were in service to their country.

This is why when Jon Guinta, airport operations manager, noticed “the canopy was filthy,” he wanted to clean it up and make the plane look like new again.

Guinta said he loves seeing the Corsair each morning when he drives up the hill to the airport, and after 15 years he wanted to make it look better.

Guinta and Jason Richards, with Farmington’s General Services Department, went up to the canopy in a bucket truck and opened it up.

When they opened the cockpit and “tried to remove the mannequin, he fell apart,” Guinta said. However, they “buffed the canopy up real nice.”

“It looks 10 times better with that canopy now that you can see in there,” Guinta said.

However, there was one problem, the airplane sitting empty with no pilot “didn’t look right,” Guinta said.

Guinta decided to contact the ARC Thriftstore to see whether management there could help.

“We went down in the basement and got a mannequin to get this pilot all cleaned up,” said Sharon Lewis, a board member for the ARC. “He (Guinta) went downstairs, and he found everything he needed.”

A replacement “pilot” for the A-7 D Corsair at the Four Corners Regional Airport was donated by the ARC Thriftstore. (Brad Ryan/Special to the Tri-City Record)

This included the mannequin and a full uniform. The only thing remaining from the former pilot was a helmet that was buffed up to appear new.

Once again, Guinta went up in the city’s bucket truck to put the new pilot to work, and he sits there proudly in the cockpit under the canopy, giving passersby a thumbs-up.

“With the thumbs-up, he looks like Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun,’” Guinta said.

Sharon Lewis said people who drive by “can wave to him because he’s sitting there with his thumb up.”

With a cleaned-up airplane and pilot on board, there was one thing missing, Guinta said the pilot needs a name, and ARC decided to promote a naming contest.

Considered a community focused organization, the thrift shop is “a corner store for the community,” said Melissa Wilkins, executive director.

All the proceeds and donations stay in the community to help people with disabilities live independent lives, Wilkins said, adding that the organization also supports other nonprofit organizations by forwarding donations on to such places as the animal shelters and the battered women’s shelter.

In addition to this, the ARC has started an academy offering classes to people with disabilities on a variety off topics – “anything and everything to help them be independent members of the community,” said Jacob Gonzalez, outreach coordinator for the ARC.

With this community focus, the ARC wanted to tie the new pilot’s name to the community, so Gonzalez is collecting names of San Juan County veterans who served, and one of those names will become the pilot’s as well.

“People submit who their hero is,” Sharon Lewis said.

“We have already had several nominations online,” Gonzalez said, adding that each veterans story has been and will be featured on the ARC’s Facebook page each Sunday.

Gonzalez said names can be submitted online, on Facebook, or people can simply call the ARC and speak share the story with him. The last day to enter will be July 2.

Once the names are collected, Guinta said “Captain Malloy from the National Guard will draw the winner” on the Fourth of July.

“The winning entry will not only have the honor of naming the pilot but will also be immortalized with a plaque beneath the plane, a lasting reminder of their contribution to this remarkable project,” Mike Lewis said.