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Hickory Aviation Museum in North Carolina showcases the Golden Age of Aviation with artifacts like a model of the Wright Flyer to WWII aircraft. But recently, they got a surge in viewers when over 83,000 people took an interest in a feral cat named Phantom and her five kittens born inside a T-33 jet cockpit.

“Who would have thought that a little grey cat named Phantom awould bring so much notoriety to us,” said general manager Buford Barnett.

Phantom the mama cat

Phantom the mama cat via Hickory Daily News, Robert C. Reed

Barnett worked with the Humane Society of Catawba County to catch the kittens and, later, the clever mama cat, who would be spayed after evading capture.

Phantom has been a beloved regular around the museum, and being familiar with the area, she decided the purrfect place to give birth was inside a T-33 Shooting Star airplane. The plane is from the late 40s to 50s and has no engine anymore. Access to the engine was riveted closed so that nobody could get inside – nobody except for Phantom. With coyotes, hawks, trucks, and planes all around, it was like a fortress from danger. That’s one clever and protective mama cat.

“No one was small enough to even attempt to go into the jet to try to pull them out,” Barnett said. “They had an advantage on us there.”

Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star via Wikimedia Commons  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Fortunately, when the kittens were old enough, they could peek out of the cockpit, and that’s when a museum member saw them. First, the man heard a rustling sound and then, he saw mama Phantom and two little heads stick up, per the Charlotte Observer.

The picture looks like a kitten turned pilot and went viral on Hickory Aviation Museum’s social media as the “Cockpit Kitten.”

“Not only do we battle rain, wind, heat, wasps, and birds, one of the cats that roams the airport near the terminal decided to have kittens in the T-33 Shooting Star. If anyone is looking for a kitten, please stop by during museum hours and inquire. This is why we need to build the museum to get our aircraft indoors!!!!”

Cockpit kitten, Hickory Aviation Museum

Image via Facebook/Hickory Aviation Museum

Humane Society Works with Aviation Museum

Everyone was fascinated by the T-33 Shooting Star kitties and wanted to know what would happen to them. The Hickory Daily Record shared the wonderful news that Barnett was working with the Humane Society’s Erin Hooks so the kittens would be caught and taken into foster care before finding homes. She saw the story on Facebook and came to help.

Buford Barnett with

The Humane Society’s Erin Hooks with general manager Buford Barnett. Images via Hickory Daily News, Robert C. Reed

However, they first had to get the cats out of the T-33, a waiting game. By late October, they finally caught them when Phantom came outside the plane with the furbabies, enticed by food.

“… We’re going to name them something cool,” Hooks said. “I have a list of all the airplanes out here.”

Indeed, many people on Facebook were suggesting aviation-themed names.

“I hope they are named Yeager, Orville, Wilbur, AE, Jackie, and Lindy!” suggested one person.

Another person said, “It was the TOMcat that got her in this condition to begin with,” alluding to Top Gun.

“It’s not their fault. They feel the need. The need for speed!” said another.

Phantom Finally Captured

The mother Phantom was cleverly avoiding capture, managing to nab the food bait but getting away without triggering the trap to close. She was a pro at evading capture, which might be why she remained unspayed for so long. The Charlotte nonprofit Friends of Feral Felines offered help with the process on Facebook. 

But finally, the rescuers caught Phantom on Halloween, and she was taken in to receive care. According to the Observer, she may return to live at the museum as part of TNR (trap, neuter, return) efforts. She has become a “beloved fixture” there, they shared.

Meanwhile, the now-famous T-33 Shooting Star kittens may be ready to find forever homes in late November or December. You can learn more at the Humane Society of Catawba County, where many dogs and cats need loving homes. Although their stories may not be famous, they are still just as worthy of finding a wonderful home.

You can follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

In an update, we see two female kittens and three males. 

“After landing at the Hickory Airport, our 5 kittens, 2 female and 3 male, are safe and being well cared for at HSCC! They are currently 6-7 weeks old, and too young to be adopted. They are little ‘spitfires’ and need some foster care for approximately 4 weeks,” they shared recently.

T-33 Shooting Star, kittens, Catawba County Humane Society, aviation T-33 Shooting Star, kittens, Catawba County Humane Society T-33 Shooting Star kittens, airplane, Catawba County Humane Society

Then, someone shared that they, too, adopted a kitten found in the area of the Aviation Museum. Possibly, this is another of Phantom’s kittens, but fortunately, her days of having more kittens are over.

“Probably a step brother, “Sir Ocelot” is just over a year old now. His mom nursed him in the aircraft hangar wall where I work at the Hickory airport on the west side. When she left him, it took me four weeks to catch him. This photo was just before he finally came to me dated mid Sept 2021. He has been adopted by me, neutered, meds etc. and is well taken care of by me as well as those that work here. He is our Hangar Mascot. When he curled up, he fit in my hand,” shared Pilot Bryan Austin.

Sir Ocelot the kitten

Sir Ocelot the kitten via Faebook/Bryan E. Austin

In honor of our T-33 Shooting Star kittens, the Hickory Aviation Museum shared a Top Gun parody with Owl Kitty.

Featured image: Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

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