Naval Aviation Heritage on Display in Rhode Island

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The Quonset Air Museum is housed in one of the last surviving buildings of what once was the mightiest Naval Air Station (NAS) in the northeastern U.S.. The hangar was originally used as a paint shop for reconditioned aircraft; today part of it acts as a repair and restoration facility for the all-volunteer museum staff as they rebuild and maintain almost two dozen former military aircraft. Before we take a closer look at the aircraft collection, here’s some of the rich history that surrounds the area.

The need for a large northeastern U.S. naval air station was identified as early as the 1920s, but one wasn’t commissioned until just a few months prior to the beginning of World War II. NAS Quonset Point was built on the shores of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, taking advantage of a naturally deep channel for a port. Initially, the base hosted aircraft which flew “neutrality” patrols, housed training and aircraft maintenance functions, and readied itself to receive locally-based aircraft carriers. When war was declared, the base gained an anti-submarine mission, more training aircraft arrived and a heavily-tasked Overhaul and Repair (O & R) aircraft maintenance depot evolved. Throughout the war, these functions kept the base running in excess of 100% of its pre-war planned capacity.

After World War II, multiple Essex class aircraft carriers added their air wings to the base’s already crowded ramps. Throughout the Korean and Vietnam wars, maintenance of aircraft like the Corsair, AD Skyraider , S-2 Tracker, various helicopters, and later, the A-4 Skyhawk made up the bulk of the depot’s workload. As older aircraft carriers were retired, their air wings were eliminated or moved away. Quonset was slowly stripped of all but their O & R function, and in 1974, (some 35 years after the base opened), it base was decommissioned due to an excess of repair and overhaul capacity, identified during the military’s post-Viet Nam war drawdown.

Much of the base’s infrastructure was transferred to civilian use, but over time most buildings were demolished. All but one of the base’s aircraft hangars were torn down; only the museum’s structure remains. One can still see the ductwork in the ceiling of the building, as well as grates cut into the floor, which created an airflow that facilitated spray painting.

Almost all of the museum’s aircraft and memorabilia are stored in their hangar. A special occasion for the museum and its’ dedicated volunteers occurs almost every year. The (almost) annual Rhode Island National Guard’s open house and air show showcases more than a dozen of the museum’s aircraft on static display. After they’re towed out of the hangar, aircraft receive a wash down and are moved to the air show ramp. Most of them look airworthy and ready to fly.

Some aircraft, such as a pair of McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawks, have been recently painted. Bureau Number 158148 is the first A-4M variant built, and has received an authentic, but short-lived black and white color scheme used at the US Navy Air Test Center at NAS Patuxent River. The other Skyhawk is finished in the Navy’s Blue Angels colors. There are a pair of rare jets that are going under deep restoration… A McDonnell Douglas F-4A Phantom and a McDonnell F2H Banshee. Others, such as the Curtiss XF-15C and the Douglas F3D-2 Skynight, need only final painting and stencils to be completed.

Restoration of rare and one-of-a-kind airplanes is a mix of knowledge and luck. Finding correct parts for long-retired airframes can be a difficult chore. Museum President Dave Stecker tells the tale of searching for afterburner assemblies for their F-4A Phantom, which used General Electric J79-8 engines. One set was found, but Dave still needed a set for the second engine bay. With no leads to go on, he decided to begin his search at GE’s engine plant in Ohio by entering his own last name into the company’s automated phone directory. He ended up with a contact for someone who had a very similar, but not exact last name. He called this random phone number and told his story to the man on the other end. As luck would have it, the Ohioan’s father was the program manager of that engine series at one time. Soon, Dave and the former manager, now retired, communicated and the last -8 afterburner assembly that GE had on hand was donated to the museum

Claude Laflamme, Plane Captain for the sole remaining Curtis XF-15C attack plane in existence, told another story of what was thought to be an inspection window accidently provided it’s true purpose when the aircraft was being prepared for painting. The XF-15C was an early example of a mixed propulsion fighter, with a large Pratt and Whitney radial engine paired with a small Allis-Chalmers J-36 turbojet. The J-36 is a copy of one of the original production jet engines, the De Havilland Goblin. Along each side of the XF-15C, a pair of glass windows are found above the jet engine; it was thought that these were inspection ports. While Claude was sanding a side of the plane in preparation for painting, faint letters appeared next to one window. Upon further light sanding, white letters from a stencil appeared… stating that in case of fire, one needed to break the glass and insert the fire extinguisher nozzle!

Although not the only focus of the museum, naval aviation is well represented in its collection. The museum’s first restoration project was a Grumman TBM-3E Avenger; the “Turkey” has an authentic and rare APS-4A air-to-air radar set hung under its right wing. Viet Nam-era aircraft include an Sikorsky SH-3, a Grumman A-6E Intruder and MiG-17. The F-14A Tomcat was delivered directly to the museum when the Navy flew it into the Quonset airport, and another Grumman product, the radial-engined C-1A Trader is the only surviving example of a twin-tailed conversion. The A-4s, XF-15C, F2H Banshee, P2V Neptune and F-3D served in naval service too. Former Army UH-1 and OH-6 helicopters, and a restored Nike missile are displayed with an ex-Arizona ANG A-7D Corsair II jet. The Collings Foundation’s AD-5 Skyraider had “wintered over” inside the museum during the 2013-2014 season too.

The Quonset Air Museum is open daily during the summer, and weekends only the rest of the year.

Their web site at: has more details and a complete list of attractions.

Ken Kula

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