News | Dec. 21, 2022

FRCE Artisans Earn Kudos for Repairing Damaged Vintage Aircraft

By Fleet Readiness Center East

A pair of Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) artisans recently got a chance to step back in time while doing a good deed for the community.

Robert Waits and Thomas McKeel worked together for about a dozen years as sheet metal mechanics on the CH-46 helicopter line at FRCE, which ceased operations in 2012. When the two friends were asked to repair damage to the HH-46D “Pedro” search and rescue helicopter that serves as a local landmark in Havelock, they jumped at the chance.

The damaged H-46 helicopter is one of three vintage aircraft on permanent display in front of the Havelock Tourist and Event Center, along with an RF-4B Phantom II and an A-4M Skyhawk. Two windows on the helicopter were broken and a third was cracked in a case of suspected vandalism. McKeel, now a sheet metal mechanic on FRCE’s H-53 line, said his supervisor approached him about repairing the windows on the Vietnam-era aircraft, and he asked his friend Waits, now working in the Security Department as the FRCE locksmith, if he would be interested in working on the project together.

“I told my supervisors that this was a sentimental project for me because it’s an aircraft I enjoyed working on that’s not around anymore,” Waits said. “I expressed my interest in doing this service for the community, and they gave me the go-ahead.”

The pair said they replaced the two broken windows and repaired the crack in the third in less than two hours—far less time than the job was predicted to take. McKeel said it was a credit to their experience that they were able to complete the job so quickly.

“The first time we did that repair, you would spend all day trying to get that one window in place with the proper tooling, which we didn’t have since the platform has gone away,” McKeel said. “It’s one of those things that you had to do more than one time, many times, to get good at it. And we did it for many years.”

McKeel and Waits may have made quick work of the repair job, but they have earned the appreciation of the local community for bringing a local landmark back to its restored condition. Havelock City Manager Chris McGee said FRCE’s efforts to quickly repair the damaged aircraft demonstrates that the facility is a good neighbor in the Havelock community.

“The aircraft that we have on display are on loan to the city of Havelock, but they are a huge part of our community and our identity as home to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point,” McGee said. “We don’t budget to do regular repairs on the display aircraft, so from a citizen’s standpoint this has a huge impact for FRC East to step up to the plate, provide the parts and repair this aircraft for us. The amazing people at FRC East do this kind of work every day, and we are very appreciative of their efforts on behalf of the city.”

FRCE Commanding Officer Capt. James Belmont honored the two artisans by presenting each of them with one of his personal coins.

“At the end of the day, you just polished FRCE’s reputation with the community. They know if something goes wrong, they can call on us at a moment’s notice,” Belmont told Waits and McKeel. “You guys did the job quickly and well, and had fun doing it. You made us all look good, and I applaud your efforts.”

McKeel and Waits agreed that they would gladly take on another aircraft restoration project if the opportunity arises, especially if they could tackle the project as a team.

“Not everybody can relive their history, but this was really fun,” Waits said. “To go in there and experience something we haven’t done in so many years, and it’s supporting FRCE, that’s just a plus.”

“I would do it all over again. I just love that aircraft,” McKeel said. “The H-46 line was one big family. It was a privilege, and a lot of fun, to be able to work on that aircraft again.”