With his buzz cut and aviator glasses, Josh Fernandez already looks the part of a pilot – even as a 15-year-old kid who cuts lawns for pocket money.
He’s almost an Eagle Scout, short a few merit badges. So as he closed in on top honors, Fernandez chose a final project to fit his lofty life goals: To sand and paint a World War II fighter plane.
He didn’t pick any aircraft with a set of shark’s teeth on the nose. For spring break, Fernandez and his four siblings are touching up a near-full-size replica of a P-40 Warhawk – the same plane flown by Moore County native Hoyle Upchurch, a Flying Tiger shot down in 1944.
Only about 5 percent of Boy Scouts nationwide make Eagle. For his project, Fernandez might have mapped a trail, built a boat ramp or painted a mural in a local kindergarten – all worthy enough.
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But his grandfather served as a bombardier in World War II. His dad served with Army Aviation, repairing helicopters. At 15, he’s halfway through his own pilot’s training. Selling pizzas to buy paint seemed like more fitting work.
“You want to make sure it’s the right OD green,” explained Fernandez, a sophomore at South View High in Hope Mills, referring to the exact paint shade. “I can tell you there are about three colors that are about a smidge off.”
The P-40 in question sits in Gilliam-McConnell Airfield in Carthage, not far from the golf links of Pinehurst and the tarmac at Pope Field. Roland Gilliam built the airport himself in 1994, paving the runways with just one partner, watching it grow into a local attraction anchored by the Pik-n-Pig barbecue restaurant.
Gilliam also has slowly built monuments to local fliers killed in combat.
His first: Sgt. James McConnell from Carthage, a volunteer who sailed to France and flew missions in World War I before the United States had even joined the fight.
His second: Upchurch, a native of High Falls who disappeared after the Japanese shot down his P-40 over China. His body remained there until 2005, when DNA testing confirmed his identity and sent him home to Moore County.
While Gilliam was pondering the memorial for Upchurch, he heard about a retiree outside Sanford named Zeb Harrington who had built a World War II plane replica from scrap metal. When he investigated, he discovered Harrington had made a slightly smaller version of the P-40. It was a near-perfect model.
“I was expecting a piece of junk,” Gilliam said. “The dials in the cockpit are made from soda cans, but I’ve been flying 58 years and I thought they were real. The pointers are all toothpicks painted white. You’ll never know the difference.”
Harrington gave Gilliam the plane to display, hearing it would honor Upchurch. But it remained painted in a camouflage pattern, which is accurate only for the P-40s captured by the Germans or given to the Chinese. Once Fernandez noticed the replica facing the runway, he made his pitch, keeping a detailed notebook full of his progress.
I should note here that I never made it past Cub Scouts, and never notched any achievements more notable than second place in the Pinewood Derby. Fernandez collected cardboard refrigerator boxes to make pizza holders. He got dough donated from a Fayetteville pizzeria. He made 120 pies, selling 110 and eating the rest.
He spent Wednesday and much of Thursday sanding and stenciling the plane, readying it for the first coat. By Saturday, he expects it to sport a fresh green coat of Olympic ICON.
“Good exterior paint,” Fernandez said.
Meanwhile, Gilliam dreams of a Carthage air museum, and a memorial to fliers in Korea and Vietnam, and a roof to cover it all.
Fodder for the next Eagle Scout.
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More airfield monuments
See more about plans at Gilliam-McConnell Airfield at carthageairmuseum.org.