NAS Wildwood Museum’s Vintage Home

Many aviation museums are housed in elegant buildings made from stone, steel  and glass.  Their architecture seeks to create a tribute or memorial to aviators, engineers, and manufacturers of the past.  In contrast, Rio Grande New Jersey’s NAS Wildwood Aviation Museum is housed in a vintage World War II aircraft hangar that was built with the future in mind… specifically for the survival of the United States,  while our nation fought during the global conflict.  “Hangar Number One” is an all-wooden structure that was a standard design utilized by the Navy during the war, and is one of the last of its kind still standing.  The importance of its design and use has earned it a place in the National Register of Historic Places “at a level of National Significance”.

During the latter half of World War II, Navy dive bombing and rocket projectile training activities were performed from Naval Air Station Wildwood and its outlying auxiliary field in Delaware.  Over 150 aircraft (F4U Corsairs, TBM Avengers, SBD Dauntlesses and SB2C Helldivers included) were based at the field at any one time, along with up to 3,000 trainees and support personnel.  After the War, Cape May County became owner of the Naval Air Station, and most of the buildings were either moved or demolished.  The main hangar was retained, and various aviation concerns operated from it at the airport.  In June 1997 the Naval Aviation Station Wildwood Foundation, a non-profit organization, was formed to “help restore Hangar #1 and create a memorial to those men who lost their lives training here”.

Today’s Museum contains more than two dozen military and civilian aircraft ranging in design from the 1930s and 40s through the new Millennium.    Most of these are housed inside the 92,000 square foot hangar.  The collection includes one of the last operational F-14D Tomcats, a pair of TBM Avengers, a MiG-15 and T-33s.  Two other notable aircraft with interesting histories are aboard too.  Only 27 (25 according to some) Cessna OE-2/O-1C Bird Dogs were built for the US Marine Corps, and one is part of this collection.  Manufactured with a larger engine, different wing and a taller tail, the observation aircraft offered much improved performance over earlier versions of the venerable Bird Dog.   A small bit of armor was introduced to shield the crew of two, and these were used until the North American OV-10 Bronco became available for Marine units.  Coast Guard Training Center Cape May is located very close to the former Naval Air Station, and the Museum’s Sikorsky HH-52A  is a former Coast Guard rescue helicopter.  The aircraft on display was the first of its kind to receive on-board radar, and operated aboard the icebreaker USCGC Polar Star during Antarctic support cruises.

Museums are built to house antiques.  Besides 1940’s-vintage aircraft like the TBM, and Stearman and BT-13 trainers, there is a fair amount of memorabilia on display, including a series of attention-grabbing Life magazine covers.  A room that exhibits some of the comforts and innovations of the early 1940s – including a vintage radio by the fireside and a hand-clothes washer – is set up in a former hangar office.  Don’t forget that the hangar you’re walking through was built during the same time.  The NAS Wildwood Museum is fortunate to be able to house its collection of antiques and memorabilia within an antique… inside a nationally-recognized Historic Place too.

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