CHERRY POINT, N.C. (WITN) – Two Fleet Readiness Center East workers have repaired a vintage aircraft damaged last month in a case of vandalism.
Two Marines, PFC William West, and Lance Cpl. Andrew Carranza, were charged with injury to real property and disorderly conduct as they turned themselves in to police on Aug. 22nd after their faces were posted across social media.
Havelock police said the two damaged an HH-46E “Pedro” helicopter on Aug. 20th by trying to spin the helicopter blades, breaking windows, and climbing into the aircraft. Pictures showed one man walking on the wing of a jet at the event center as well. Police estimated the damage to the helicopter at $1,000.
Tuesday, FRCE says Robert Waits and Thomas McKeel were asked to repair damage to the search and rescue helicopter, and they jumped at the chance. McKeel, a sheet metal mechanic on FRCE’s H-53 line, said his supervisor approached him about repairing windows and he asked his friend Waits, who works in the FRCE Security Department as a locksmith, if he would join him.
Given that the aircraft is from the Vietnam-era, Waits said, “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.”
WITN is told that the pair replaced the two broken windows and repaired the crack in the third window 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.”
In fact, McKeel and Waits worked together for about a dozen years as sheet metal mechanics on the CH-46 helicopter line at FRCE which closed operations in 2012.
Havelock City Manager Chris McGee said FRCE’s efforts to quickly repair the damaged aircraft shows the facility is a good neighbor of 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 employees 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.”
The break in the vandalism case apparently came when employees of a Waffle House recognized the Marines as two customers who stiffed them on their food tab an hour before the vandalism happened. An investigation into the unpaid restaurant bill followed.
“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.”
McKeel said it was a privilege to be able to work on the aircraft again.
“I would do it all over again. I just love that aircraft. The H-46 line was one big family.”
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