LABOR OF LOVE - The Explorer: Import

LABOR OF LOVE

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Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2003 12:00 am | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Greg Marco seems like your average grease monkey. On any given day, he can be found in his garage, tools in hand, working on it. He's devoted countless hours to it. Over the years, he's invested tens of thousands of dollars in it. It's a devotion that has easily consumed his every waking moment.

But then again, Greg Marco is not your average grease monkey. It - the obsession to which he's given the last five years of his life - is an F4 fighter jet.

Marco purchased the plane in April 1997 from the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC) near Davis Monthan Air Force Base. Over the years, he has fully restored the hunk of metal and turned it into the mother of all video games: a flight simulator. And he's sharing it with the public at Foothills Mall through the end of March.

Just in case Marco had any ideas, it had to be de-militarized when he bought it; the wings were ripped off and the tail was chopped. (And it didn't come with any bombs.) Now all that's left is the nose section and cockpit.

Over the next five years, Marco dedicated his every free moment to bringing the plane back to its original condition.

"It's been a fun project," he says. "An amazing journey."

Marco, 38, who lives in Marana with his wife Betsy and 4-year-old daughter Jacklyn, can also keep a secret. He kept the plane, which he's named the "Freedom 4," in his garage and hidden from view during the five-year project.

One neighbor and close friend, Scott Cole, knew nothing about it.

"No one on the street knew," Cole says. "He built the whole thing in his garage. And then, just one day I was driving by in my truck and there's a plane in his yard."

Cole, 20, now helps Marco give test flights at the Foothills Mall.

"It's like actually flying it," he says. "It's pretty amazing."

Aside from all the original switches and gadgets, Freedom 4 is rigged with two television monitors that display the simulator program. Marco bought the software commercially, then created an interface so that the plane's original controllers - and not a computer keyboard or joystick - would actually control the game.

When all the extras come off - the monitors and ladder to board it - it looks like it did when it was built in 1967. Marco even fashioned a special trailer to haul the four-ton plane, but it separates, too. He went to these great lengths so that the plane could be used for movies or photography, if that need ever arose.

"When everything's off of it," he says, "it looks like the real thing."

That's because it is the real thing.

And Freedom 4 also has a very real history. "I spent a month just meticulously carving the paint off the side," he said. "It's kind of like going back in time."

On one layer, Marco found the words, "City of Dayton, Ohio." He also found the names of the three pilots who last flew the plane. He plans to contact them one day and show them what he's done with their plane. At one point, he brought in parts from another F4 to replace what was missing on the original. And after doing some research, he learned his plane did some time in Vietnam.

"As far as I know, it does have some combat history," he said. He also believes the plane was responsible for shooting down an enemy fighter during the Vietnam war.

The F4 Phantom was designed for air-to-air combat and first flew in 1958, and were used by the Navy and Air Force during the Vietnam War, the plane's heyday. It flies nearly twice the speed of sound and can reach altitudes in excess of 50,000 feet. For years, the F4 was the ideal combat jet.

If you visit, Marco will tell you all of this and more. He's a consummate airplane buff and has been most of his life. His father, Gary Marco, took him to his first air show in Chicago when he was a kid. Since then, he's been hooked.

Marco sees that same connection in other young kids when they first lay eyes upon Freedom 4. But it isn't just kids who are affected.

"We had one couple in their '50s come back and fly it three times," Marco says.

When another man stopped by to test the plane, it was a trip back in time. He used to fly the planes when he was in the military, and now, several decades later, he's back in the cockpit.

"I thought I would never, ever get an opportunity to fly it again," he later told Marco.

Marco isn't just there to make a buck, either. In fact, it will take him years to recover his cost, he says.

"It's a labor of love," he says. "That's all it is."

And when people complain about the cost before trying it out - rides are $10 for five minutes - they usually end up feeling like they got the better end of the deal afterwards.

So exactly how much money has Marco sunk into the project? It's hard to know, he says, but he will admit that it took a second mortgage on his house.

"If the same plane was built by a corporation," Marco says, "it would cost $1 million, easily." That's a lot of money for a city of Tucson Van Tran truck mechanic, Marco's profession.

"I get a lot of satisfaction out of that [job] because I get to help handicapped people," he says. (He's got another plane in the works - an F-16 Falcon - that he says he wants to make handicap accessible.)

He hopes the money he makes on test flights at the mall will help pay for the next project. In the few weeks he's had Freedom 4 available to the public, he's had nearly 400 customers. And he's a natural marketing whiz. Once finished, customers have the option to buy t-shirts, photos of themselves in the plane, mouse pads, even chunks of scrap metal from another plane. He's even started his own company - G.E.M. Innovations (Great Educational Memorabilia).

Regardless of the cost, it's hard to say no to the opportunity to sit in an actual fighter jet cockpit. Customers perform all of the functions of a regular flight, including taking off, combat and landing. "Just like the real thing," Marco says, "without leaving the ground."

Or the mall.

It's hard to say who gets the most out of the experience when they visit - children, adults or Marco himself. He says he's lucky to have the opportunity to meet so many interesting people, many of whom share tidbits of information about the plane. One former pilots even got choked up at the sight of it.

"I guess it kind of hit me that the impact of it was much larger than I had expected it to be," Marco says.

A group of teen-agers who visited Marco on a Friday evening weren't quite sure what to make of it.

"What is it?" one asked.

"What do you think it is?" Marco asked back.

"It looks like a part of a plane," the other said. After finding out the cost, the trio left to scrape up some cash.

Marco will be at Foothills Mall, located near the northern entrance next to Paper Warehouse, for most of March, and will be open each weekday from 6 to 9 p.m., on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Then he'll be making a trip to the Davis Monthan Air Show on March 29 and 30. He says he may return to the mall following the air show. He'll be offering discounts to military personnel on March 15, Foothills Mall's special Military Appreciation Day.

When asked about how the project has impacted their family life, Marco's wife Betsy says, "I think it's been a positive project all around. I can't say it hasn't been stressful at times, but I think it's great what he did. I'm really proud of him. I've been told by people how amazing I am to put up with that over all these years.

"She's actually really supportive," Marco says. "She's one of the most understanding women in the world."

And just for the record, Betsy has flown the plane a few times herself.

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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