MY ELIZABETH CITY DIVERT:

 

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A few weeks ago I was heading south down NC-168 for a vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina when I decided to hang a right turn on 158 and head south do a quick side trip to Elizabeth City before I hit the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk. Elizabeth City is a pretty plain southern city but six miles to the southeast on the Pasquotank River is Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, the second largest Coast Guard aviation base in the United States. Actually called Elizabeth City Regional Airport (ECG / KECG), the airport is essentially a military base and officially owned by the US Coast Guard. The air station is one of the busiest in the USCG, operating missions as far away as Greenland, the Azores and even the Caribbean.

Currently CGAS Elizabeth City maintains and operates five HC-130J Super Hercules SAR aircraft and four MH-60T Jayhawk helicopters. In addition to its aviation mission, the Air Station houses: the Aviation Technical Training Center (ATTC) that trains enlisted Coast Guardsmen in aviation ratings; the Aviation Logistics Center (ALC) that does depot level maintenance on all fixed wing aircraft and Station Elizabeth City, the small boat search and rescue station on the River.

The Base Main Gate on Weeksville Road has three pristine Gate Guards: a Dassault-Falcon 20G HU-25 "Guardian" medium fixed-wing surveillance aircraft (the last retired in 2014 from CGAS Corpus Christi); a Grumman HU-16 "Albatross", a large twin-engine amphibious flying boat (the last retired from CGAS Cape Cod in 1983); and a Sikorsky-Agusta HH-3F (S-61R) "Pelican" medium-lift transport-SAR helicopter (retired in 1994).

Near the CGAS contract maintenance hangers to the south on the fence line along Consolidated Road were two USCG early HC-130 Hercs that have now become "Hanger Queens" that are now being systematically "cannabalized" for spare parts. Adjacent to the  nearby FBO ramp, also on Consolidated Road, were four dark olive drab Army Boeing-Vetrol CH-47F "Chinooks". Their use is unknown and there are no known Army Aviation Units based at ECG.

Besides the USCG-owned Air Logistics Center at the north end of the Base, the aircraft overhauler DRS Technologies recently built at the south ramp also along Consolidated Road over 200,000 square feet in two new massive hangers large enough to service simultaneously five HC-130J Hercules aircraft. Four additional large overhaul hangers are being planned to be built across the street with a connecting concrete taxiway already built to bring in large aircraft for servicing. It is not known if these will be for servicing military or commercial aircraft.

Two miles south of ECG is the remains of Naval Air Station Weeksville, a WW2 lighter-than-air (LTA) airship and sea plane base that was in operation from 1941 to 1957. The US Navy built the facility for servicing air ship dirigibles conducting anti-submarine patrols off the US Atlantic Coast and coastal harbors. The original Navy contract for NAS Weeksville called for a 300,000 square foot steel hanger 960 feet long, 328 feet wide and 190 feet high with a helium storage and servicing facility, barracks and support for 228 men, a power plant, a large airship landing apron, sea plane ramps and a mobile mooring mast.

Due to US steel shortages at the start of WW2, a second yet larger 1,000 foot long Dirigible Hanger was built at NAS Weeksville but was instead made of all wood, which would later prove to be a very bad idea when the whole hanger later burned to the ground. That second Weeksville Hanger would become known as the world's largest wooden structure before its destruction by a fire. The dried out yellow pine contributed to a massive fire and it burned to the ground in 1995. The only things still remaining standing today are four 200 foot tall concrete stair towers that were at each corner of the hanger. The remaining steel dirigible hanger continued to have various uses until the TCOM Corporation moved in in 1985.

In the 1990s TCOM built and serviced display blimps similar the Goodyear Blimp. NASA's Project Echo inflated communication satellites were built and tested here. In the late 90s TCOM started building and testing aerostat surveillance and communication balloons for NSA, CIA and the Navy - large 200 foot tethered balloons used for visual and telecom security intercepts. The TCOM steel dirigible hanger can accommodate up to six fully inflated 71 meter aerostat balloons.

Adjacent to the 1,000 foot hanger is a 50,000 square foot ground systems manufacturing facility that has two 300 foot long bays with heavy duty overhead cranes to lift and rotate components during construction of the surveillance aerostats. Exterior ground wenches and mooring towers elevate the aerostats to very high heights for fixed testing. There is also a new 30,000 square foot Integrated Logistics Support Building next to the ground systems building. Another facility is six miles away for the manufacture and testing of smaller high flying aerostat surveillance balloons. These TCOM facilities in and around Weeksville and ECG have become the central East Coast hub for all government and commercial aerostat and airship / blimp maintenance and assembly activities including aerostat and airship manufacturing, assembly, flight testing, training, consulting, communications design, advances payload design and fully integrated modular mooring systems.

Later that day we were back on the road again heading east to the Outer Banks and Kitty Hawk, NC. ECG was a nice afternoon Divert.

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