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Fairgrounds and county agree to bring Vietnam War-era A-4 Skyhawk to Heroes Hall

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A rendering shows how the A-4 Skyhawk jet currently located at the Santa Ana Civic Center could look if moved to the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa. In the background is the fairgrounds’ Heroes Hall veterans museum.
(Courtesy of OC Fair & Event Center)

A Vietnam War-era jet will have a new home at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa following a deal struck this week by Orange County and the Fair Board.

The A-4 Skyhawk is being moved to make way for new county buildings at the Santa Ana Civic Center and is slated to land at a new site near the fairgrounds’ Heroes Hall veterans museum.

Fair Board member Douglas La Belle, who has helped coordinate the aircraft’s move, said Thursday that he would like to have the jet installed before November so a dedication ceremony can be held on Veterans Day.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to spend $206,000 to move and reinstall the Skyhawk and build a plaza where it would rest on a pedestal. The plane will remain on loan to the county from the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla.

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Nick Berardino, president of the Heroes Hall Veterans Foundation, said the county chief executive’s office contacted him about eight months ago regarding the possibility of relocating the jet to the fairgrounds. Berardino said he immediately accepted the offer because the aircraft was flown by a commanding officer at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

“Having the jet at Heroes Hall, where we serve about 100,000 schoolchildren each year, is huge,” he said. “It’s a teaching museum and it teaches that freedom isn’t free and it teaches [that] the sacrifices that brave men and women made for the great country won’t be forgotten.”

Kevin Donohue, 65, of Lake Forest, flew Skyhawks from 1980 to 83 while serving with Marine Attack Squadron 311. He said the jet was the Marine Corps’ go-to platform for decades when infantry needed bombs dropped, rockets shot and guns fired at enemy troops.

Though the Skyhawk had a reputation as a battle-tested aircraft, its cockpit was so small that Donohue recalls being able to drape both his arms over the side of the plane. He hopes that one day he’ll be able to volunteer as a docent at Heroes Hall to teach schoolchildren about the aircraft’s history.

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“I don’t know that there is the same understanding that freedom can be threatened from time to time and that our freedom comes from the people making the ultimate sacrifice,” he said.

Board member Ashleigh Aitken recommended that fairgrounds staff explore the idea of selling custom bricks in the future plaza around the Skyhawk as a way to raise money for the Heroes Hall Veterans Foundation. The bricks would enable members of the public to honor family members who served in the military.

La Belle said it’s important that the area around the Skyhawk be improved with artificial turf and benches to make it fit with the design of Heroes Hall.

“One of the things we clearly articulated to the [design] team is we wanted this to be something that looks like we always intended to do it this way,” La Belle said.

Daniel Langhorne is a contributor to Times Community News.

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