Aviation Sights of New Jersey

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When Pierre Blanchard had ascended from Philadelphia in a hot air balloon on January 9, 1793 and made the 15-mile journey across the Delaware River to Depford, New Jersey, he had made the Western hemisphere’s first aerial flight, sparking a long line of aviation accomplishments in the Garden state.

                Charles Durant, of Jersey City, for example, had subsequently become the first American balloonist to fly in 1830 and Dr. Solomon Andrews, constructing the first dirigible three years later, rose above Perth Amboy and flew to Long Island, then an unheard-of achievement by air.

                The Boland brothers, of Rahway, built the first fixed-wing aircraft in 1909 and became the first to fly in South America.  Three years later, in 1912, Oliver Simmons carried the first official sack of mail across Raritan Bay, from South Amboy to Perth Amboy, in a Wright Flyer.  The first five World War I flying aces had hailed from New Jersey, earning the title in 1918.  The world’s first dirigible, the USS Shenandoah, had been built in Lakehurst in 1921.  The Barling Bomber, constructed at Teterboro Airport in 1922 by the Wittlemann brothers, had then been the largest aircraft ever designed. 

                Air-cooled Whirlwind engines, built in Princeton, had powered many early aircraft of the 1920s.  Metropolitan New York’s airmail hub, established in 1925, had been located at Hadley Field in South Planfield.  Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett had been the first to navigate a Teterboro-constructed Fokker Trimotor, powered by Whirlwind engines, over the North Pole in 1926.  However, the feat had been one of many made possible by the engine: in 1927, Charles Lindbergh had flown across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis; Clarence Chamberlin had flown to Germany two weeks later; and Richard Byrd and a crew of three had flown to France, all in aircraft powered by the Whirlwind.

                Newark Metropolitan Airport, the world’s busiest airfield, had opened in 1928 and became the location of America’s first air traffic controller, William “Whitney” Conrad. 

                The 1930s continued to see New Jersey aviation achievements.  Fokker, for example, had designed the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the F.32, at Teterboro Airport in 1930, while Amelia Earhart had prepared for her solo transatlantic flight here, and the first aviation high school course had been established in Teaneck.  Glen Rock’s Chester Decker became the National Soaring Champion in both 1936 and 1939.  Naval Air Station Lakehurst had been the mooring point for the Graf Zeppelin Hindenburg.

                Between 1942 and 1945, General Motor’s Eastern Aircraft Division built 13,500 Grumman fighter aircraft at its Tilden and Trenton plants for the war effort, while the Curtiss-Wright Corporation produced 281,164 engines and 146,468 electric propellers in six northern New Jersey locations.  Major Thomas McGuire, of Ridgewood, New Jersey, became the country’s second leading flying ACE, having shot down 38 enemy aircraft, while Frderick Castle of Mountain Lakes and First Lieutenant Kenneth Walsh of Jersey City, along with McGuire, had received Congressional Medals of Honor for their feats. 

                The first rocket engine, developed by Reaction Motors of Danville in 1947, had powered the Bell X-1, the first design to break the sound barrier, while their subsequent rocket engine had powered the North American X-15, the first aircraft to fly in space.

                The world’s first hovercraft had been designed by Charles Fletcher of Sussex in 1953.

                Beyond the atmosphere, Walter M. Schirra of Oradell became the only astronaut to fly in all three spacecraft in 1968–Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo–while Montclair’s Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first astronaut to land a vehicle on the moon one year later.

                New Jersey’s rich civil and military aviation heritage can be explored at several strategically located airports and museums.

                The Aviation Hall of Fame and Museum of New Jersey, for instance, founded in 1972 and located on the east side of Teterboro Airport, is dedicated to the preservation of the Garden State’s distinguished, two-century aviation and space heritage.  The first such state facility created for this purpose, it enshrines the men and women whose aeronautical achievements had brought world-wide recognition to New Jersey.

                Aside from the Hall of Fame itself, its small indoor display area features several significant engines, inclusive of a two-cylinder, 28-hp, 1400-rpm, horizontally-opposed Model A Lawrence from 1916, which had been the forerunner of the Wright Whirlwind; a J44 turbojet engine model from the Teterboro School of Aeronautics; an XLR99 liquid rocket engine, which had first powered the X15 in 1960; a Curtiss Wright XLR-25-CW-1 motor assembly; a Wright Cyclone R-1820; a Wright Tornado R-2160, which had developed 2,350 bph at 4,150 revolutions-per-minute; and an air-cooled Wright Aeronautical J-5 Whirlwind.

                Several rotary wing aircraft are also represented, such as a Super Scorpion helicopter, which had won the 1977 Experimental Aircraft Association Rotorcraft Ground Championship, an H-13 (Bell 47), and an Apache.

                A Curtiss-Wright Dehmel Flight Simulator had once been used by Eastern Airlines.

                A few significant exhibits are maintained outside.  A M*A*S*H unit, for example, features a hospital tent, an operating room, a mess tent, an ambulance, a truck, and a Bell helicopter, and serves as a living memorial to Korean War veterans.  Two rare, commercial aircraft, also located outside, include a Martin 202A registered N93204, which had been manufactured on July 8, 1950, and the nose section of a Convair 880 registered N803TW.  The quad-engined airliner, the third such Convair 880 built, had been delivered to Trans World Airlines in 1961.

                Teterboro Airport, the museum’s location, is equally significant.  Owned and operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jesey, the facility, covering 827 acres, had had its origin in 1917 when Walter C. Teter had acquired the property for it.  The oldest operating airport in the northern New Jersey and New York metropolitan area, it had once been the site of North American Aviation aircraft manufacturing during World War I and subsequently served as the base for Anthony Fokker aircraft.  It had fielded its first, current-site flight in 1919.

                After having been operated by the Army and the Air Force during World War II, it had been purchased by the present Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on April 1, 1949.  Serving as a general aviation reliever airport under Federal Aviation Regulation 139, the airport, with some 200,000 annual aircraft movements, features two runways—6,015-foot Runway 6-24 and 7,000-foot Runway 1-19; 4.2 miles of taxiways; an FAA control tower; and 19 hangars with a collective 412,000 square feet of area.  It is a founding member of the Aviation Hall of Fame and Museum of New Jersey.

                The Air Victory Museum, located in Lumberton at the South Jersey Regional Airport, is another significant aviation facility and focuses on military aircraft and their powerplants.  “An educational organization dedicated to inspiring today’s youth through the technology and achievements in aviation,” according to its mission statement, the museum, which is partially certified and approved by the US Air Force and fully approved by the US Navy and the National Museum of Naval Aviation, seeks to “educate, celebrate aviation advances, and honor those who made them.”

                Its aircraft collection encompasses a McDonnell-Douglas A-4D Skyhawk Attack and Ground Support aircraft in Blue Angels livery, an F-4A Phantom, a Lockheed F-104G Starfighter, a North American F-86-D/L Sabre Jet, a Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star, a Ling Temco Vought A-7 Corsair, and a Grumman F-14 Tomcat.  The engine exhibits are equally significant and include a German World War II Rocket Assist take off engine; a Junkers Jumo 004 eight-stage axial turbojet, which had powered the Messerschmitt Me-262; a Curtiss-Wright J-65; a 2,000-hp Pratt and Whitney two-row, 18-cylinder, air-cooled R-2800 radial; a Pratt and Whitney TF-30, its first afterburner-equipped powerplant; and a General Electric J-79.  Centerpiece of the engine exhibits, however, is a working Pratt and Whitney R-4360.  The largest piston ever designed, it features four rows, seven banks, and 28 cylinders, and had been the only powerplant able to develop its 3,670-pound weight in equivalent horsepower.  It had been used by several bombers, including the goliath, ten-engined B-36 Peacemaker.

                The Wright Brothers’ contributions are represented by a full-size reproduction of the Wright Flyer, a 1903 Flyer 1 engine replica clearly showing the technology transfer from the bicycle with its chains and sprockets, a Kitty Hawk representation with the Wright Flyer having just disengaged itself from its acceleration track over the sand, and an actual wind tunnel built under their supervision.

                Space is represented by an Orbital Space Plane Cabin Mock-Up docking simulator, an ITOS-D Improved Television Infrared Observation Satellite System built by RCA in Hightstown, and the Orbit ‘81 Ant Colony Experiment prepared by Camden High School students and launched on the Space Shuttle.

                Research can be done at the Harold Watson Raymond Sleeper Stephen Synder Memorial Library.

                The South Jersey Regional Airport, location of the Air Victory Museum, is a nontowered field with a single, 3,911-foot asphalt runway (08-26) and some 113 based aircraft owned by the New Jersey Department of Transportation.

                Southern New Jersey is rich in historic Army and Navy air bases.

                The Millville Army Air Field Museum, the first of these, is located at Millville Municipal Airport and had been used for Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt pilot training during World War II.

Driving into the airport, currently a general aviation facility, is like entering a World War II time portal: several cinder block buildings and barracks, characteristic of the war, stand eerily silent and vacated, as if the area had once provided the stage for some vast performance, but its players had long since departed.  The runways still routinely field take offs and landings, but mostly of single-engined Cessnas and Pipers.  Yet, the location had been an integral part of World War II and therefore remains historically significant.

It had been one of 900 defense airports ordered by the US government to be strategically located round the country in order to be immediately convertible from civilian to military application and to train counterforces in the event of war.  Unlike the others, however, Millville Army Air Field had been the first one and therefore had been dedicated as “America’s first defense airport” by local, state, and federal officials when it had opened on August 2, 1941 amid a 10,000-strong ceremony.

The current, 923-acre Millville Municipal Airport, New Jersey’s second-largest general aviation field, sports an instrument landing system (ILS) and an FAA Flight Service Station (FSS), the City of Millville leasing its administration to the Delaware River and Bay Authority.

                Today, the airport echoes of its World War II role.  Of the 100 buildings occupying the site during the four years between 1941 and 1945, 20 remain and constitute the world’s largest collection of original, war-era structures, and the preservation, of the core acreage, two hangars, and 18 buildings, has been ensured by their inclusion on the New Jersey and National Registry of Historic Places.

The Henry H. Wyble Historic Research Library and Education Center, one of them, is located in one of the base’s original warehouses and sports an extensive, war-related book collection, videos, historic documents, and aircraft models, and serves as a large-screen theater.  The facility, which opened in 2007, features two eight-by-ten foot, “faux,” partially-opened door murals painted by local artists on its façade.

                The Link Trainer Building, hailing from 1942 and requiring two years of restoration, houses one of only five still-operational link trainers.  Designed by Edwin Albert Link at his family’s organ-building business in Binghamton, New York, to provide instrument training to World War II pilots during poor visibility and night conditions, the device, borrowing the organ bellows to simulate climbs, descents, and banks, had accounted for 6,271 sales to the Army and 1,045 to the Navy and is presently available for visitor usage for a small fee.

                A vintage aircraft collection, privately owned by Thomas Duffy and stored in one of the two historic hangars, includes the P-47 Thunderbolt “No Guts, No Glory,” one of only ten still-airworthy aircraft and the very type for which the air base had been created.

                The original Pilot Ready Day Room, constructed in 1943, now houses the Ops-Air Crew Lounge of Big Sky Aviation.

                Nucleus of the historic field, however, is the Millville Army Air Field Museum housed in the original Army Air Force World War II Gunnery School Administration Building used between 1943 and 1945 and restored in 1988.  The museum, founded by Michael T. Stowe to preserve US military aviation history, mostly displays artifacts, equipment, photographs, and engines contributed by air base veterans.

A Pratt and Whitney Double Wasp twin-row radial engine, which had powered the P-47 based here along with several other Army and Navy designs, emphases the sheer power of this mighty engine and is a highlight of the displays.  A ceiling light had measured cloud height, while a directional gyro had served as a pilot navigational training aid.

                The metal, interlocking Mardson Mat, designed by the British, had facilitated take off and landing operations at ill-equipped locations.  According to George Canning, a current Millville Army Air Field Museum affiliate who had enlisted in the Army Air Corps in December of 1941 and had served in the South Pacific, “it’s the best invention of the whole war.  Put it together and you have an instant runway!”

                The Philadelphia Seaplane Base Museum, founded in 1915 by the Robert Mills family and relocated to the current site in 2000, displays aeromarine wings, struts, and pontoons.

                A Nordon bombsight, the mahogany nose of a Curtiss Flying Boat, an aircraft model collection in memory of Robert Wilinski, photographs, a uniform collection, and a typical Army barracks set up complete the internal displays, while two aircraft are featured outside.  The first, an A-4F Skyhawk, had been assigned to Attack Squadron 192 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Orskary in 1968 during its Vietnam War combat tour, while the second is a Short Brothers SD3-30 named “Kwajalein Atoll.”

                Aside from the exhibits, the museum fields World War II pilot reunions, films, school educational programs, aircraft fly-ins and air shows, and veterans’ events.

                Millville Army Air Field, time portal to World War II and once a significant gunnery pilot training facility on the east coast with a fleet of P-47 Thunderbolts, is a living history experience which transcends the past and tells its story to the visitor in the present.

                The second historic base in Southern New Jersey, Naval Air Station Wildwood, is located at Cape May Airport.  Constructed in 1942, it had facilitated dive-bombing training with a fleet of Douglas SBD Dauntless, Curitss SB2C Helldiver, Grumman TBM Avenger, and Vought F4U Corsair aircraft, at which time its pilots, arranged in air groups, had transferred to their respective aircraft carriers in the Pacific.

When victory had closed the doors on World War II’s theaters in 1945, the Navy had discontinued its training programs at Naval Air Station Wildwood and by December of the following year, it had been deactivated, its 109 buildings having been declared surplus.  Of these, 79 had been offered by the War Assets Administration, which had intermittently acquired the property, for off-site use, while several larger structures had been given to Cape May County, which had resumed operation of the station.  Hanger Number One, which had been designed by architect Albert Kahn and whose construction had commenced as far back as October of 1942, had been one of them.

Formed by bolted wood Pratt trusses subdivided into ten-foot panels at the roof level, the cavernous, 2,558,000-cubic-foot structure had been 290 feet long, 219 feet wide, and 51 feet high, and had been completed with cross-braced vertical supports at its north and south elevations and a center support, which had once provided the division between its two internal bays.  Its east and west elevations had been created by 12 full-height telescoping doors.  Aside from once housing the air station’s aircraft fleet, it had also featured offices, workrooms, and maintenance facilities.

The subsequently abandoned structure, having fallen into a state of disrepair with rotting wood and cracked windows, had been resurrected by Dr. and Mrs. Joseph E. Salvatore in 1997, who had formed the not-for-profit Naval Air Station Wildwood Foundation to save and preserve it as a memorial to the 42 pilots who had lost their lives during their training here between 1943 and 1945, and had subsequently been listed on the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places at the National Significance Level.  That hangar now houses the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum, which features some 30 aircraft, engines, interactive exhibits provided by the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, films, a library, and a gift shop.

The hangar, commissioned by the Navy in April of 1943 and one of the few remaining World War II all-wooden structures, is breathtaking in size and magnitude and represents the conversion of resources created by nature for use by man.

Propeller-driven aircraft are represented by the Vultee BT-13 trainer, the OE-2 “Bird Dog,” the Boeing-Stearman PT-17 Kaydet, the North American T-28C Trojan, and the Grumman TBM-3E Avenger, one of only eight designs listed on the National Register of Historic Places, while pure-jet fighters include the McDonnell-Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, the Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, the Grumman F-14B Tomcat, and a MiG-15.  Rotary wing aircraft encompass the UH-1 “Huey,” the AH-1F Cobra, the Hughes OH-6A “Cayuse,” the Bell OH-13C “Sioux,” and the Sikorsky HH-52 “Seaguard,” while both fixed and rotary wing engines include an Allison J-33, a Pratt and Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp, a Wright Cyclone R-1820, a Pratt and Whitney R-4360 Wasp Major, a T53, and even a 98,000 thrust-pound Pratt and Whitney PW4098, which powers the mammoth Boeing 777.

Aside from the aircraft and engines themselves, the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum often hosts fly-ins, veterans’ ceremonies, historical lectures, and school field trips.

                The 1,000-acre Cape May Airport, the museum’s location, is itself of historic value, having evolved from the naval air station.  Sporting two 4,998-foot runways (1-19 and 10-28), six taxiways, and three parking ramps, the general aviation facility annually fields 39,000 movements primarily comprised of corporate, recreational, and charter aircraft, and stands as a testament to the location where fields, once cultivating corn, had later cultivated pilots whose dive-bombing skills had been instrumental in Pacific theatre and ultimate World War II victory.

                Pierre Blanchard’s hot air balloon ascent in 1793 had sparked a long line of aviation accomplishments in New Jersey, a path which can be retraced today by visiting its significant airfields and museums from Teterboro Airport in the north to Naval Air Station Wildwood in the south.


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