NAVAL AIR STATION LEMOORE — People don’t often think about the dangers a Navy pilot faces each day until something goes wrong.
Two pilots stationed at Naval Air Station Lemoore hope to change that by building a memorial dedicated to Navy aviators who have lost their lives while stationed in Lemoore.
Lt. Cmdr. Erik Kenny and Lt. Cmdr. Ben Charles have already raised about half of their goal of $50,000 to make the memorial a reality. The biggest expense is a seven-foot bronze statue depicting a pilot holding his helmet and looking out over one of the runways.
The statue will be placed in the observation area along Reeves Bypass, located outside of the base’s operations-side gate. Currently, the location consists of just a few parking spaces and some benches.
“People already come out here just to watch the planes,” Charles said. “It’ll be great to have this area improved so people can sit and reflect on the people that have gone before them.”
Initially the memorial will include the statue, some concrete, engraved bricks with the names of major donors and some benches.
Depending on how much money is raised, the two airmen hope to eventually beautify the site more. Because the spot has no access to water or electricity, those improvements might include artificial landscaping and perhaps some solar lighting.
“Our goal is just to get something here,” Kenny said. “We’re not looking to close the doors once we get the $50,000. If this thing takes off, it could eventually turn into something bigger. We could look at maybe starting a scholarship fund. There are talks of a museum opening.”
Kenny and Charles said they were inspired to form the NAS Lemoore Aviator Memorial Association last year, in part, to honor their friend and fellow pilot Lt. Matthew Ira Lowe, who was killed on April 6, 2011 while training for an air show. Weapons systems operator Lt. Nathan Hollingsworth Williams was also killed in the crash.
But there is more to the memorial than just personal ties.
While doing research for the project, Kenny said they spoke with a number of Vietnam War veterans and learned that Lemoore is believed to have lost more pilots during the war than any other air base.
“This project has turned into something much larger now,” Kenny said. “We’re going to represent all of the aviators that we’ve lost.”
Charles pointed out that Kings County already has several military memorials, including the Prisoner of War memorial in Lemoore and the Wall of Heroes in Hanford. But there is nothing dedicated to aviators who paid the ultimate price.
Kenny, who hails from Peekskill, N.Y., and Charles, who comes from Ocean City, N.J., have each been in the Navy for more than a decade. For much of their careers, the two airmen and their families have called Lemoore their home.
The two men said the local community has been very supportive of the project. Several citizens have already stepped up to serve on the group’s board of directors.
The project has been totally supported by donations and fundraiser events. Kenny and Charles said they aren’t getting paid for their efforts, and every cent they raise goes directly to pay for the memorial.
Kenny and Charles said their goal is to complete the statue before their Navy duties send them away from NASL. If their fundraising efforts continue to be successful, it could be done by this fall.
Eventually, the memorial may serve as a gathering place in the event that another Lemoore pilot loses their life in the air.
“We’re not naive enough to think that it probably won’t happen again,” Kenny said. “To have a place to go when that happens — kind of a central place — is another benefit.”
The reporter can be reached at 583-2458. Follow him on Twitter @MikeE_HS.