Willow Grove sees final departures

A sailor and guests watch the P-3 Orion in the final takeoff from the 8,000-foot airstrip in Horsham that is now decommissioned. Personnel will stay at the base for six months to organize the shutdown of the entire operation.
A sailor and guests watch the P-3 Orion in the final takeoff from the 8,000-foot airstrip in Horsham that is now decommissioned. Personnel will stay at the base for six months to organize the shutdown of the entire operation.
Posted: March 31, 2011

Seven military aircraft powered up their engines and taxied slowly along the runway, as if hesitant to leave the ground.

Yet one by one, the hulking C-130 turboprop, the nimble A-10 Thunderbolt, and an assortment of other helicopters and jet fighters took off - hurtling down the 8,000-foot stretch of pavement for what would ultimately be a one-way trip.

"Willow Grove, thanks for the 68 years of dedicated service," a radio trafficker's voice squawked as the last plane disappeared into a gray afternoon sky.

Then, the runway lights went dark.

On Wednesday, the last military aircraft at Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Horsham took their final flight, headed to a new home at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.

The Horsham base, which has been scheduled for closure since 2005, will remain open for six months as military personnel clear out and shut down operations. Wednesday's ceremony marked not only the closing of a now-decommissioned runway but the end of an era for the community that housed it and American aviation itself.

During nearly seven decades, that stretch of runway sent thousands of U.S. service members off to wars in Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East; witnessed technological breakthroughs that helped lead to the development of the helicopter; and transformed a patch of barren landscape into a growing suburban hub.

"As disappointing as it is for many to see this day come, I think we can say it's been a good run," said Rear Adm. Mark S. Boensel, commander of the Navy's Mid-Atlantic region. "There's certainly plenty to be proud of here."

What would become one of the area's largest economic generators began with a man seeking the isolation to let his dreams soar.

Harold Pitcairn, son of Pittsburgh manufacturing tycoon John Pitcairn, identified what was in 1926 a nondescript patch of farmland as an ideal space to build airplanes after his neighbors in Bryn Athyn ran his plan out of town.

Horsham, with its wide-open spaces, suited Pitcairn's purposes fine. During the next two decades, his field - along what is now Route 611 - would become the birthplace of many new aircraft and a few flights of fancy. There, he developed the country's first airmail business with his Mailwing plane - an enterprise that would become Eastern Airlines, shuttling correspondence between New York and Atlanta.

Pitcairn also bought French patents for a winged airplane with a rotor on top and developed them into a craft known as the Autogiro. The plane drew crowds for its ability to take off at steep angles and land nearly vertically. Its technology would become the basis for the helicopter.

In 1931, he coaxed Amelia Earhart to take off from the runway in a heavily publicized cross-country race - a contest she lost after stopping for frequent pit stops to socialize with onlookers.

Pitcairn gave up his aviation business in 1942 and sold the land to the Navy at the height of World War II. The base quickly became a staging ground for military personnel and their families as well as for projects including the search for an effective deterrent to German submarines.

But even then, "plankholders" - the term given to the first naval crew members assigned to a newly commissioned ship or base - considered the airstrip's muddy environs as "out in the sticks."

"Back in those days, it was still pretty isolated," said Howard Minogue, who worked on training flights in the '40s. He traveled from Tennessee to attend Wednesday's ceremony.

Gradually, though, Willow Grove expanded its operations through the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars and in 1994 became one of the military's first joint reserve bases, housing operations for the Air Force, Pennsylvania National Guard, Navy, Army, and Marine Corps on the same 1,100-acre property.

As the base grew, Horsham followed.

Military men and women settled in the area, many opting to stay after their stints in service. Civilians who moved nearby grew accustomed to the near-constant thrum of jet engines overhead.

Like many, Montgomery County Commissioner Joseph M. Hoeffel III - who grew up in nearby Abington - recalls childhood trips with his family, driving up 611 and parking to watch aircraft take off.

"I grew up with those planes," he said. "Then, I took my kids to see them."

These days, more than 25,000 people call what was once Pitcairn's isolated plot home. Some estimate the base and its staff generate as much as $800 million in property- and sales-tax revenue to the surrounding area a year.

But with the runway's final flight behind it, its future remains up in the air. The town the runway helped create is set to play a deciding role in determining its future.

Some groups, including Montgomery County and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, advocate preserving the airstrip for possible future commercial use, but Horsham's Township Council remains vehemently opposed keeping the runway intact.

Instead, they and other municipalities, including Montgomery and Warminster Townships, have proposed turning the entire tract over to redevelopment.

The Horsham Land Reuse Authority, an independent board composed mainly of government officials and business leaders, is expected to present a final proposal to the Navy by the end of the year.

In the meantime, the Navy will continue to dismantle its operations.

Nearly all service members are set to vacate Willow Grove by Sept. 15. A handful of National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers will remain, and the Air Force will maintain administrative offices on the property.

But as Vice Adm. Dirk J. Debbink, commander of the Navy Reserve Force, gave Willow Grove its final farewell Wednesday, he abandoned questions over the base's future, opting instead to focus on its past.

"A lot of ordinary living took place on this base," he said. "Babies were born. Couples were wed. Birthdays were celebrated.

"Horsham, our neighbors, were part of all of these."


Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218 or at jroebuck@phillynews.com.

 

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