By Pat Loeb
WILLOW GROVE, Pa. (CBS) — A huge expansion is planned for the aviation museum at the old Willow Grove Naval Air Station, one that sponsors say would turn it into a major attraction for the region, drawing a million visitors a year.
Currently, the Pitcairn Wings of Freedom Museum is largely outdoors. A small building houses its most valuable object — the 83-year-old Pitcairn Mail Wing and a few others — but most of its 17 planes sit outdoors on three acres, tended by volunteers like Jeff Markley.
“When you get one restored, that one, that’s been out for 8 years, now you got to go back and sort of spruce it up. It’s a continuous catch up,” he says. “It would be nice to get all those airplanes inside.”
And that’s what retired Major General Ron Nelson hopes will happen in the next several years, as the Navy divests the shut-down base.
Nelson is chairman of the board of the museum operator, the Delaware Valley Historical Aviation Association. He expects the museum to get 14 acres and already has a plan for a $24 Million, 33,000 square foot, glass exhibition hall that would allow the museum to triple its current collection.
“The beautiful thing about it to me is it looks like an airplane ready to take off,” he says. “Imagine looking off 611 and seeing that building, boy, I’d be going in there.”
Nelson unveiled the plans, Friday. Architect Michael O’Rourke says it was a labor of love.
“For an architect, it’s a dream job in some ways,” he says. “My parents were pilots, that’s how they met.”
Nelson hopes to acquire on of Harold Pitcairn’s auto-gyros, the invention that gave birth to the helicopter industry. He also hopes to get one of every kind of plane that flew out of Willow Grove.
“To keep history alive. This is one of our major reasons for making this happen,” Nelson says. “History disappears awfully quickly, and we’d like to make sure those who served at Willow Grove will be remembered.”
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