Remembering NAS/JRB Willow Grove

This week the U.S. Navy commemorated the last day of flight operations at Willow Grove.  The final day of flight operations was more ceremonial than operational, with the end being marked by a public ceremony and final flight by seven aircraft representing the various aircraft types still active there in the last months preceding the DoD’s Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) shutdown of the base.  Most of its flight operations will be moving to the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in central New Jersey.    

As a Horsham resident, I will refrain from fretting here – as I have in other posts – about its future as a massive vacancy located a scant half-a-mile from our home.  Instead, I’d like to reflect on the things I remember most as a Philadelphia native and infrequent visitor, and later as a permanent neighbor and appreciative friend.

My earliest memories of the base are those summer afternoons and evenings, usually as we drove to or from the homes of relatives living in Warminster and Lansdale.  As city residents – originally of Germantown, then later Northeast Philly – being in the ‘burbs was in itself a fascinating experience … All those trees and wide open green spaces!  The fact that the airbase shared name and proximity with Willow Grove Amusement Park, where roller coasters, a train ride through a Wild West of cowboys and Indians (Sorry, I refuse to say “cowboys and Native Americans”.) in frozen action poses, and a bowling alley the size of a New England state, was lost on my overwhelmed, urban-dwelling young mind. 

The first time my dad pulled into the original public parking area on Rt 611 (Closed permanently in the precautions taken after the 9/11 attacks.) I was fascinated and a tad over-excited.  Where else could a kid sit but a few hundred feet away from huge aircraft, fighters and helicopters taking off and landing?!?  We would sit there for as long as my mother could tolerate or – as was sometimes the case – long enough to determine that the Weekend Warriors had nothing going on that particular day. 

I’m certain that Dad grew tired of my frequent pleadings to revisit the airbase and watch the planes, especially whenever I realized we would be leaving for another visit to our conveniently located relatives. 

On one occasion, we stopped on the way home in fading twilight.  The public lot was PACKED with cars, not that I noticed.  After some time passed, I noticed Mom and Dad laughing as they looked at the cars around them.  When I followed their eyes, I saw nothing to laugh about.  All I saw was a woman doing the hand-jive with the guy in the car next to her.  Somewhat later in life they let us in on the secret.  We had stumbled upon the local Horsham teen Kiss ‘N Pet park.  And the girl in the car was parrying the advances of her beau because she knew my parents were amused voyeurs.  (When we were teens, we used to refer to going down to the Delaware River for such fun as “watching the submarine races”.  I wonder what Horsham teens called it at the airbase?)

But I digress …

When Carol and I married, we bought a house in Far Northeast Philly, only a driver and long fairway iron from the North(east) Philadelphia Airport.  So when Carol and I considered buying our current home, which I knew was but a good stretch of the legs from NAS Willow Grove, I eased her concerns about the local airbase.  I was not worried about our safety, the noise, or the rumble of overhead aircraft.  You recognized it as a military airfield, but not a particularly busy one.  With the lack of major military commitments other than Bosnia at the time, NAS Willow Grove was quite sedate.

But to be honest, I was more than a little bit enthralled by our proximity to the base, as any of my sons could attest whenever anything big and loud came flying over the house.

Of course the biggest test of Air Base Tolerance were those pre-BRAC, infrequent Willow Grove air shows.  There is no bigger suburban “wow factor” than having a flight of four Blue Angels screaming over your house just above tree-top level!  Thankfully, that wasn’t a regular fixture of air base neighborhood living.  But for a weekend every couple of years when you – hopefully – had nowhere to drive with all that traffic, it was a fun change of pace in that man-child love of all things noisy and fast.  I found the best way to enjoy the air show was finding a comfy, shaded spot out front of the Army Reserve facility across Rt 611 from the runway with a selection of beverages and treats, a lawn chair, binoculars, and a book.  

But admittedly the air show also carried its inherent risks, as living near an airbase always does.  I was there on Father’s Day during the 2000 air show when an F-14 crashed, during a low-speed pass and engine flame-out, killing both crew members.  What was most haunting for me was the memory of seeing that same fighter screaming over the Horsham little league fields the day before the crash.  When we looked up, the aircraft was so  low you could clearly see the helmeted heads of the two aviators.  Another haunting memory was the September 2001 airshow that I attended – under my favorite tree – just two days before the 9/11 attacks. 

There was also the time our Warminster uncle piled a bunch of us into his car (I do not recall the year.) when an airbase plane crashed into a local shopping center or supermarket.  I can still picture a group of firefighters on the roofline as they worked the rescue effort.

No, it’s never a totally clean or carefree existence when a community shares its life with a large military airfield, whether it hums like McGuire Air Force Base or trundles about in its PJs and slippers as NAS Willow Grove seemed to for the past six years. 

I could never understand when local residents would complain about having a military airfield in their midst.  In my befuddlement I failed to grasp how they missed that 892-acre elephant out on Rt 611 when they decided to live in the area.  Afterall the base was founded in 1942 at the height of the U.S.’s World War II conversion from peace-time complacency to war-time leviathan.  So the Willow Grove airbase preceded 99.5% – by my estimation – of all previous and current households in Horsham, Willow Grove, Warminster and surrounding areas.

One way-out-there idea I held in the deeper recesses of my overly active imagination was to recognize the base’s contribution to national defense by draping our roof  with a huge “THANK YOU, NAS/JRB Willow Grove!!” sign for its final air show.  (How that would have worked, I have no clue.  But the expression on Carol’s face would have been priceless!)  However the last air show slipped by before anyone knew it would be the last; so the hair-brained scheme never materialized.

As a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy I had a few opportunities to visit the Willow Grove airbase in an official capacity.  In that role I had access to a side of the base few local residents ever saw.  You had to be impressed with the dedication and professionalism of those who served there.  Many an unsung American hero passed through that main gate and exited off that runway to duties in harm’s way in far distant lands.  How many never returned?

So “Thank You, NAS/JRB Willow Grove!!” and to all who passed through Horsham’s military portal in its almost 70 years of service to the U.S.A.!