During the Cold War, as the United States faced off against the Soviet Union for nearly half a century, army, air force, and naval bases were constructed throughout the nation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, US military planners looked across the United States and saw a surplus of installations, each gobbling up a significant portion of the annual budget. Through a plan known as Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), over 350 military bases and installations were decommissioned during the 1990s and early 2000s. This plan brought annual savings of over 12 billion dollars. While the national budget benefitted from BRAC, local communities that relied on the bases for jobs and tax revenue and were hard-hit. Beyond the financial implications, these bases were also cornerstones of their local communities (via
Once a small grass airstrip in the town of Horsham, Pennsylvania, Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove was established during World War II. For over 60 years, it was home to Reserve elements of the US Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Army. In 2005, however, BRAC came calling, and Willow Grove was shuttered, its operations moving to other facilities in the region, such as Maguire Air Force Base in New Jersey (via
Wikipedia). While the base has been significantly redeveloped for new businesses, one long-time tenant remains: the Harold F. Pitcairn Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum. Established in 2004, this museum seeks to preserve the aviation heritage of the eastern Pennsylvania. I visited the museum about 10 years ago, long before this blog started, so on a weekend in late February, I decided to return and explore!
So come along, then, on another military aviation museum tour. Along the way, we’ll pick up some breakfast and also share some automotive updates!
Wings of Freedom
My Saturday morning drive would take me from central New Jersey to the Horsham/Willow Grove area of Pennsylvania, with a quick stop along the way for breakfast in Lambertville, NJ.
Instead of major highways, my route took my through numerous rural roads. With a cloudy sky, occasional flurries, and temperatures in the mid-20, it made for a bit of a gloomy mid-winter drive!
My first stop was to meet up with a former coworker at Chive Cafe and Catering in Lambertville. Chive was a favorite lunch spot when I worked in this area, and I also took some friends here during our Honda Accord meetup this past September.
An absolutely delicious (although maybe not the healthiest) start to my day: an egg, pork roll, and cheese sandwich on a brioche bun. But at least there’s fruit, right? Fueled up, and after saying goodbye to my friend, it was back on the road to the next destination!
After winding my way through two-lane country roads, I made my way to Horsham, PA and arrived at my destination. The Wings of Freedom aviation museum parks much of its fleet of aircraft outside in clear view of motorists on nearby Route 611 – a brilliant, free way to advertise!
My first stop was to get a ticket ($8 for adults) and have a nice chat with the kind lady at the front desk. She pointed out some of the highlights of the museum, such as this Pitcairn PA-8 Super Mailwing. Built in 1931 in a hangar beside an airfield that would eventually become the Willow Grove military base, Pitcairn constructed these lightweight, easy-to-fly biplanes for the US Postal Service. The mail sat in a fireproof box in front of the pilot. In addition to the Postal Service, the PA-8 was also owned by business magnate Howard Hughes and actor Steve McQueen (via Wikipedia).
The museum has a collection of numerous aviation artifacts, from uniforms and ejector seats, to engines such as this Curtis-Wright Cyclone 9-cylinder engine that powered a number of US Army Air Force and US Navy planes. First built in 1931, this 1500+ horsepower monster continues to be in limited use in airplanes today.
The museum was bit on the crowded side, so I decided to head outside to see the aircraft on display instead. I started with this McDonnell-Douglas A-4 Skyhawk. A mainstay of the US Navy and US Marines during the Vietnam War, the Skyhawk was designed to primarily attack ground targets. This particular jet, built in 1971, was removed from service in 1994 after hitting a Canadian goose, damaging the jet beyond repair (via Wings of Freedom).
One of the earliest fighter jets that could operate off an aircraft carrier, the Grumman F9F-2 Panther was a mainstay of US Navy aircraft during the Korean War. These jets are notoriously tough: one pilot returned to safely land on his aircraft carrier despite being hit by enemy fire two hundred and sixty three times (via Wikipedia).
This mammoth turboprop-powered aircraft is a P-3B Orion. It is designed to fly over the ocean, searching for enemy submarines, and carries a payload capable of attacking anything it finds. My friend Justin, who owns the 990,000+ mile Honda Accord, spent his career in the US Navy flying a P-3C Orion, the next generation of this venerable aircraft.
One of my favorite jets in the collection is the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom. The workhorse of the US Navy during the Vietnam War, this jet continues to be of service in air forces worldwide over 60 years since its introduction.
I was in contact with Justin throughout my visit, as I picked his brain for further information about what I was seeing. One sign on the Phantom caught my eye – Justin explained that in the event of a brake fire or tire over-pressurization, the Phantom’s wheel may separate, sending shrapnel laterally. If the safety of the wheel and tire is in doubt, this sign sternly reminds crew members to approach the wheel from in front or from the rear, but never from the sides. As I’ve said before, the deck of an aircraft carrier is a highly dangerous place to work.
If you’re a military history enthusiast, this YF-2Y Sea Dart is worth the price of admission. This aircraft, one of only five constructed, was built in 1951. At a time when the US Navy was uncertain whether supersonic aircraft could operate from an aircraft carrier, this jet was designed to take off and land on water. It remains the only seaplane capable of exceeding the speed of sound (via Wings of Freedom). There’s a joke about “hey, have you seen my new jet ski?” somewhere in here, but I just can’t figure out the punchline… submissions welcome in the comments below.
The Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II is hardly a sleek, attractive aircraft. Its pilots call it the “Warthog,” and it is designed to attack enemy tanks with cannon shells the size of milk bottles. Packing over a quarter ton of titanium armor, the ‘Hog is capable of taking punishment as well as giving it. In 2003 over Iraq, Colonel Kim Campbell’s A-10 was hit by numerous rounds of anti-aircraft fire. The shots did enough damage to knock out one engine, cut the hydraulics, and riddle the airframe with bullet holes. Campbell flew the plane back to base, an hour-long ride, and landed her plane without incident (via Wikipedia).
This Piasecki HUP-2 Retriever was used by the Navy for at-sea search and rescue missions. It’s also the first helicopter to ever come standard with autopilot (via Wikipedia).
Something new from the last time I had visited the museum – this small memorial garden for veterans of the US armed services.
While the F-14 Tomcat always will be my favorite fighter jet, my second favorite is the F/A-18 Hornet. Operated by the US Navy and Marine Corps, the Hornet is capable of both air-to-air combat and attacking targets on the ground. It is designed to be reliable and affordable to maintain, while being a solid performer in all of its duties… think of it like the Honda Accord of fighter jets.
Imagine a small commercial drone that you’ve seen in use by hobbyists… this is its grandfather. The QH-50 DASH unmanned helicopter was designed and built in the early 1960s, designed to be operated from US Navy ships too small to embark a full-size helicopter. The DASH could be equipped with torpedos, and was intended to help hunt enemy submarines (via Wikipedia).
My fascination with the DASH must have been evident, as one of the museum guides came over and engaged me in conversation. He patiently answered all of my questions. This is the control station, which would have been on the flight deck. No flying the drone from the comfort of a cozy interior cabin, whoever manned this panel would have been outside in the elements. As the DASH was considered disposable, its electronics were built with commercially-available components: “You could basically fix it with a quick trip to Radio Shack,” said my new friend.
If you’ve been following the news lately, you most likely saw the story of the high-altitude balloon (presumably being used for surveillance) that the US Air Force blasted out of the sky. It was shot down with an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile, like the one pictured here. In service since the 1950s, the Sidewinder has been used almost 300 times in combat.
After taking one last stroll around the museum (and checking out the Lockheed P-80C “Shooting Star”), I said goodbye to the two museum guides who took time to chat with me and answer my questions.
Before getting on the road, I pulled in for one last quick “glamour” shot of the Accord with its new-found friends. Wings of Freedom gets two enthusiastic “The Open Road Ahead” thumbs up!
An hour later, I pulled back into my garage, and noticed that my Accord had crossed another mile marker – 210,000 is now in the books! Next stop: 215k! Automotive Updates
One of the realities of high mileage car ownership is that the occasional repair will creep up. When those moments happen, you have three options: (a) sell the car and get something new (b) ignore the noise/rattle/vibration/warning light and hope it goes away or (c) fix it and keep motoring. I had taken my Accord to Burns Honda in Marlton, New Jersey, for an alignment, and the service advisor said that the rear wheel bearings were getting worrisome. As wheel bearings enable smooth rotation of the wheels (and in extreme failure could cause the wheel to detach from the vehicle), they are a safety item, and not to be ignored. With two new wheel bearings, the Accord was back in tip-top shape once again.
Finally, my friend Justin’s quest for a million miles is quickly approaching its end – his 2003 Honda Accord now has over 995,000 miles on the odometer. Onward, good sir! Wrapping Up
If you’re an aficionado of military history, airplanes, or technological innovations, the Harold F. Pitcairn Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum is a must-see location in eastern Pennsylvania. The museum is open Wednesday through Friday, from 10:30 am – 3:00 pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 am – 4:00 pm. Admission costs $8 for adults, $6 for senior citizens age 65 and over, $4 for children ages 6-18, and $6 for military veterans. Active duty military personnel, along with children ages 5 and younger, can enter for free. If you’re in the Willow Grove area of Pennsylvania, the museum is definitely worth a visit!
Thanks, as always, for coming along on another journey down the open road ahead.
‘Til next time.
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6 thoughts on “Highway to the Danger Zone.”
Cool place! Thanks for sharing!
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Thanks for reading!!
Louise said you are getting a new job. Congrats!
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The Sea Dart and DASH are really interesting to me. I didn’t even know they existed.
Congrats on 210k! Now it’s ready for more.
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I learned about the DASH when visited Battleship Cove in Fall River, MA a few years ago and they had information about it on the USS Joseph P. Kennedy (which carried the DASH after a refit in the early 1960s). I knew nothing about the Sea Dart – my Dad told me to keep an eye out for it when I went to visit.
Thanks for the high mileage good wishes… onward!!
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