Griswold: Lemoore pilots launch aviator memorial

FresnoMarch 15, 2014 

Lt. Cmdr. Erik Kenny and sculptor Dee Jay Bawden stand with a clay model of the planned aviator memorial at Lemoore Naval Air Station.

LT. CMDR. ERIK KENNY — Special to the Bee

Lemoore Naval Air Station pilots who died serving the nation will be honored with a permanent memorial at the air base south of Fresno.

Lt. Cmdr. Erik Kenny, a pilot in the VFA-14 "Tophatters" squadron, launched the project last year with fellow pilot Lt. Cmdr. Ben Charles.

"There is no memorial here, surprisingly," Kenny said. "Whidbey Island and Oceana and others all have them."

They met with base commander Capt. Monty Ashliman, who quickly gave his support. The outside community also joined the effort.

The pilots and Kings County residents Guy Brautigam, Travis Lopes and Charlie Meyer formed the nonprofit NASL Aviator Memorial Association and set a goal to raise $50,000.

To date, they've raised $35,000.

"We hope to reach the goal this summer and have a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the fall," Kenny said.

They've held fundraisers, but for the most part "it's been word of mouth" to get donations, he said.

Former Lemoore aviators have been especially keen on the memorial, he said. Engraved bricks that will be set in a memorial walk are available for $250.

All the money is going toward the memorial's construction, Kenny said.

It will be a 7-foot-tall bronze statue of an aviator wearing a flight suit and holding a helmet. The statue is being made by sculptor Dee Jay Bawden at Bawden Art and Bronze in Provo, Utah.

The statue will overlook runway 32L. To allow both military and civilians to visit day or night, the statue will be outside the base gates in a memorial park.

The genesis of the project involves a tragic incident — the April 2011 crash of a two-seat Super Hornet jet fighter in which two aviators lost their lives.

Kenny was flying when "we got word airborne there'd been a mishap," he said. After landing, he learned pilot Matt Lowe had died.

"We went through flight training together in Lemoore," Kenny said. They also served in the same squadrons.

Nathan Williams, a weapons systems officer, also died.

As the shock of the tragedy receded, Kenny and Charles realized that there was no base memorial to honor pilots who made the ultimate sacrifice.

"We decided we needed one," Kenny said.

 

Lewis Griswold covers the news of Tulare and Kings counties for The Bee. His column runs Sunday. He can be reached at (559) 441-6104, lgriswold@fresnobee.com or @fb_LewGriswold on Twitter.

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