Mystery of fighter jets abandoned in area field is no mystery at all

An aerial view of the abandoned fighters. (U.S. Navy photo)
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TEMPLE, Texas (KWTX) The recent discovery of three old Navy and Marine warplanes in a field in Temple created quite a stir over the past few days, but the fighters have been there more than 20 years and how they got there is no secret, at all.

The Department of Defense says they should have been dismantled and recycled years ago but that just didn't happen.

So how did they ended up in the field, and who put them there?

The "who" is David C. Nemen (or Neman, or Neiman, depending upon which agency is reporting, but the FBI calls him Nemen), the former owner of Temple Iron & Metal, a family business started by his father in 1946, who arranged to have the planes moved by truck to Temple after he was awarded a government contract to dismantle and recycle the old birds.

Nemen sold the business to Billy and Jessica Bachmayer in 2003 and the couple operates the business today.

Bachmayer said in a recent telephone interview the whole thing and all the attention it generated is wearing on his good nature.

"You wouldn't believe how hard it is dealing with all of this," he said.

"Today's Temple Iron & Metal had nothing to do with this."

The two Navy F-14 Tomcats and one Marine McDonnell F-4 Phantom II, model F-4B-22-MC last were officially assigned to Naval Air Station Dallas, a base which was decommissioned in December 1998 after in a base reduction and consolidation move.

Nemen, a Navy Reserve veteran, was assigned to that station.

At the time of decommissioning at NASD, Nemen owned the property occupied by Temple Iron & Metal, and an adjacent property across the Union Pacific rail line northeast of downtown.

The Phantom II, airframe registration number 152267, is the same airplane that served as a monument at the entryway of the base, according to research completed with the Department of the Navy.

The Tomcats were thought to have flown in the Gulf War but tracking down their history is a bit dicier.

Jim Hodgson, director of Fort Worth's Aviation Museum, is very familiar with the airplanes' stories and he said museum staffers have known they existed for several years.

He has visited the remnants of the airplanes says they've been there for some time given the size of the trees that grew through their aluminum framework and various other airframe components scattered around.

"The owner acquired the airplanes from the Navy and he said he had a contract to move them to Temple where they were to be scrapped," Hodgson said.

When Hodgson learned of the planes, he and staff at the Fort Worth museum felt a duty to inform the Navy that the planes had been discovered.

Hodgson said Nemen called the museum on Wednesday and asked to talk about the planes.

"He said he owns the planes and now he's trying to figure out what to do with what's left," Hodgson said.

The contract Nemen had was issued through the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office (DRMO), within the Department of Defense, Hodgson said.

The piece of property where the skeletal remains of the three warbirds rest, Bachmayer said, did not convey to him when Nemen sold the business in 2003, so for at least some time Nemen retained ownership of the property.

The Navy's last Tomcat was retired in 2006, after the Pentagon ordered all of those remaining to be cut up so parts didn't end up finding their ways to Iran, a former U.S. ally that still operates F-14s, through the international black market.

Popular Mechanics reporter Kyle Mizokami, on April 3, 2017, published an article about an online video that showed the disintegrating airframes, noting: "The planes are missing their engines — F-14s were equipped with two huge General Electric F110 afterburning turbofan engines, while the older F4s had two General Electric J79 turbojets.

"The wings were removed and are sitting in a separate pile. The electronics, particularly nose-mounted radars, have been stripped out as well as most of the cockpit controls, seats, and instrumentation.

"The F4 is an old U.S. Marine Corps F-4N Phantom II," Mizokami's story noted.

Hodgson said those items could be missing now because the airframes had been "de-milled" or rendered safe after weapons systems, navigation and avionics and anything that might include hazardous material, has been removed.

"All of the avionics, of course the engines, all the instruments and the panels they were in, the canopies and most of the landing gear is gone, nothing left but the airframes," Hodgson said.

The items also may have been stolen or otherwise removed and re-sold at considerable profit.

Hodgson said the likely reason the airframes weren't recycled is because they're not worth much money as scrap.

All three planes already had reached a non-flyable status, Hodgson discovered.

The F-4 had a history of mechanical issues and was considered unusable, which is why it ended up as the "plane-on-a-post" outside the entrance to NASD.

The two F-14s also had a speckled past and were known in the Marine pilot trade as "hangar queens", those planes that spent more time in the repair hangar than they did in the air.

The airplanes just weren't worth saving to the Navy so they were de-commissioned, as well, and put on the scrap pile, kind of.

Buying brass from Fort Hood ranges landed Nemen in court

Nemen was convicted of theft of government property in federal court in Waco in 1989.

Then-U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith, Jr., who’s now retired, was assigned the case on Oct. 10, 1989.

He later sentenced Nemen and he supervised the case until he ordered it closed after Nemen completed his court ordered supervision on March 2, 1995, the court's record shows.

Two FBI special agents assigned to the Waco field office, both now-retired, worked the case against Nemen.

Dan Chadwick was the case agent and John Truehitt, now the police chief in Lacy Lakeview, helped in the process.

The evidence Chadwick presented in federal court outlined the steps by which Nemen purchased spent brass from "brass-pickers", then re-sold the metal on the scrap market.

"Brass pickers" as the locals in Coryell County call them, are people who go onto Fort Hood in the northern training and live-fire areas and collect spent lead, brass and any other type of metal they can find, then sell it as scrap.

It's illegal, a federal crime, and extremely dangerous.

"They're crazy," Bell County Chief Deputy Chuck Cox said.

"They'll go out there on the range while the soldiers are still firing."

Years ago, before he signed on as a Bell County deputy, Cox was a military police officer on post.

Pickers have been severely injured, perhaps even killed, as a result of their illegal forays onto restricted government property, but there are people who still do it.

Agents contacted Nemen in the late 1980's and warned him that they knew what he was doing and he needed to cease and desist or there would be serious consequences.

A woman who was Nemen's employee at the time he got that letter said she remembered it: he opened the letter and read it, then "wadded it up and threw it in the trashcan," she said, "I watched him do it."

Shortly later FBI agents, assisted by agents from Fort Hood's Criminal Investigation Division and deputies from Bell County showed up at Temple Iron & Metal with an arrest warrant naming Nemen, charging theft of U.S. Government property.

Navy considers what to do now

The Department of the Navy, faced with media questions about the find, is looking into the matter in an effort to figure out what should have happened to the planes, what really happened to them and what happens now, Jeff Landis, Deputy Director, Public Affairs/Corporate Communications at Naval Supply Systems Command Weapon Systems Support, said.

In a news release issued by the agency, Landis said: "only the F-4 has an identifiable bureau (serial) number that is distinguishable, and that aircraft was formally stricken from the naval records in March 1983.

"Without discernible bureau numbers, we have not been able to positively identify the F-14s in our naval records inventory," he said

"It is also unclear why all three aircraft were demilitarized but for some reason never made it to a recycling facility," but "Efforts are currently underway to coordinate with the landowner for proper removal."

Although rules and regulations were different back when the three ghost planes were scrapped, Landis said the government has strict rules today.

"In accordance with the Stricken Aircraft Reclamation and Disposal Program (SARDIP), Navy policy for final disposition of aircraft is to drain all fluids and remove any hazardous materials prior to rendering the airframes into scrap. The scrap is then disposed of at an authorized recycling facility. In all cases, engines are removed along with wings, nose-mounted radars, electronics, cockpit controls, seats and instrumentation," regulations demand.

But what the contract Nemen signed called for isn't exactly known, Landis said, "this is something we will have to research.

"I am not sure what kind of written records we might find from two decades ago," Landis said.

Planes played a key role in U.S. defense

The airplanes, both models, were extremely instrumental in the country's defense effort, during Vietnam and into the 2000s, the pilots who flew them will attest.

The Phantom was the workhorse in Vietnam where it played roles as a support fighter, a close attack fighter, a bomber, for reconnaissance and in air-to-air combat situations.

It is described as a "tandem, two-seat, twin-engine, all-weather, long-range supersonic jet interceptor and fighter-bomber originally developed for the United States Navy," capable of reaching air speeds of more than 1,470 mph, first entering service in 1960 and retired in 1992, a McDonnell-Douglas Inc., history page says.

The F-14s were designed and built by Grumman, Inc., specifically for the Navy which meant they required a heavier airframe in order to survive aircraft carries landings.

It "was originally conceived to be one of the best air-to-air fighters ever built, a goal reached thanks to its speed, its high maneuverability and its sophisticated weapon system," a history on The Aviationist website says.

The Tomcat was designed to be the Phantom's replacement.

The Phantom, when it retired, was assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112 (VMFA-112) is a reserve Marine Corps squadron that today flies the McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet.

The squadron, initially activated March 1, 1942, was disbanded after World War II, only to be re-activated July 1, 1946, still is assigned at the Dallas-area base that grew out of the original NAS-Dallas.

Hodgson has said he and the staff at the museum are working with the Navy to decide how best to deal with the remnants of the old warbirds.

"I don't know what eventually will happen but its sad that those war planes were left to deteriorate."

The F-4 when it was mounted on a pole outside of Naval Air Station Dallas. (U.S. Navy photo)
A Marine F-4. (U.S. Navy photo)
A Navy F-14 Tomcat. (U.S. Navy photo)
An aerial view of the abandoned fighters. (U.S. Navy photo)