LOWER TOWNSHIP - Lt. Cmdr. Dominic Telenko counts himself a lucky man. He got to do the one thing he had wanted to do since he was a boy, and it's something nobody will likely do again.
The Navy aviator caught the perfect career window to fly the F-14 Tomcat in combat, with missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. He even participated in peaceful missions, including a flyby at the Gator Bowl in Florida.
On Friday, he came to the Naval Air Station Wildwood Museum to show his wife and children one of the planes he flew.
Telenko, still a Navy pilot who now flies F-18 Super Hornets, waxed nostalgic about a plane that served the military from 1974 to 2006.
"The Tomcat was the one airplane I always wanted to fly since I was little. I was lucky enough to get to fly them. The whole reason I got into Navy aviation was because of the F-14," Telenko said.
The museum has had the demilitarized, engineless F-14 on display since 2005. The name of plane's last pilot, Lt. Dom Telenko, and his call sign, "Gomer," are painted on the entrance to the cockpit. NASW volunteer John Fitzpatrick decided to do some research and try to find Telenko.
On Friday morning, Telenko, his wife, Darcy, and their children, Vincent, 3, and Sophia, 11 months, visited the museum. Telenko, a native of a Chicago suburb, is about to be deployed on the USS Enterprise but had time for a quick trip from his base at Naval Air Station Oceania in Virginia.
The museum has done plenty of research on the plane that flew in the Jolly Rodger Squadron. It knew about the 2,061 carrier landings the plane made, including a famous one future astronaut Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Edwards made with the front of the plane missing.
The visit by Telenko was a chance to record some of the stories behind the plane's history. Telenko gave museum officials plenty of details they did not know, showing them the numerous steps needed to activate the ejection seat, explaining how they could not unload fuel when afterburners were on because it would ignite, and telling them about landing the supersonic plane on an aircraft carrier. He also explained what different insignias on the plane meant.
His love of the machine was evident as he talked.
"This airplane is the aviation equivalent of a muscle car. It's one of the fastest fighters the Navy has ever flown. It's capable of some pretty amazing things," Telenko said.
Designed in the 1960s, he marveled at the "ingenious design of the airframe" and its "variable geometry wings." He said the plane was very flexible, built as a long-range interceptor but later adapted for ground-to-air warfare. It was outfitted with multiple weapon systems, including laser-guided bombs, missiles and a 20-millimeter cannon that can fire 100 rounds a second.
He described it as a "stick and rudder airplane," complaining that the F-18 Hornet has an electronic joystick "with no feel to it."
Telenko said he began flying at age 13 in a single-engine Cessna, doing his first solo flight at 17, but after graduating high school he joined the Army and became a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne. After four years in the Army, his love of flying led him to enroll at Southern Illinois University, where he studied aviation before going to the Navy's Officer Candidates School. The Navy started him on smaller training planes, but all the while he had his eye on the Tomcats.
"This is the only airplane I really wanted to fly," he said.
He flew this particular F-14 from November 2003 to January 2005 from Naval Air Station Oceania and the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy.
"It's never looked this good. These gentlemen did a great job restoring it," Telenko said.
Fitzgerald corrected him. After the Navy gave the museum the plane, it sent a crew to paint it.
Telenko resisted when Museum Director Joe Salvatore wanted him to autograph the plane below the cockpit. He didn't want to mark it up.
"I can't bring myself to do this," he said.
He finally did sign and was thanked by the museum officials for coming. Telenko thanked them back.
"You saved my favorite jet," he said.
Contact Richard Degener: