I'm on my hands and knees pulling myself over the wing's spar and doing my best not to snap off any of the ancient knobs and switches that line the plane's interior. Former Navy Reserve Airman Bob Weiss is waiting for me in the aft. Fifty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, Weiss and the rest of the crew of this Lockheed P-2 Neptune patrol plane were charged with hunting Russian subs. "It was boring work," Weiss says.
The threat of a Soviet invasion required meticulous, monotonous vigilance. In shifts of ten to fourteen hours, Weiss and his crew dropped magnetic detection buoys into the Atlantic Ocean up and down the eastern seaboard through the trapdoor where he's now sitting. Weiss, now retired from his medical equipment company, is part of a group of fellow volunteers at Hangar B based at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, the base where he took to the skies back when he was in the Navy.
These volunteers are the ground troops of The Historic Aircraft Restoration Project (HARP), which operates under the National Park Service. The "Angels of HARP" gather three days a week at Hangar B to research and bring back to life historic aircraft and other military artifacts as faithfully to their original design as possible or as their literature says, "Just short of airworthy." They also interpret aviation history for visitors like me.
Floyd Bennett Field, now part of Gateway National Recreation Area, sits on the edge of Jamaica Bay at the terminus of Flatbush Ave. Its namesake is Naval pilot Floyd Bennett, who along with Arctic explorer Richard Byrd gained fame in 1926 for a flight to the North Pole. The airport was commissioned by Mayor LaGuardia in 1931 and it was home to many record breaking flights by aviators such as Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes. Floyd Bennett Field was purchased by the federal government in 1941 for the war effort and quickly became the busiest airport in the country.
I learned facts like these and some other colorful anecdotes from HARP's de facto spokesman, Dante DiMille, a retired advertising man. "We are not the center of the world, even though sometimes we think we are. We have to share [Floyd Bennett Field] with the gardeners and kayakers." And recently, a rare Snowy Owl. "Nothing wrong with ecology," DiMille muses
Sitting next to him at a lunch table is Jack, a retired airline mechanic. He worked at Floyd Bennett Field and later at JFK. The authority on blueprints, he consults government schematic to make sure the volunteers are in compliance with the original construction.
I asked Jack why all the effort for planes that won't fly. "When the planes are gone, then what? The planes represent the history, the sacrifice," he replies.
Dante chimes in: "We're here to let people know what came before the widebody [planes]."
The hangar houses a plane that's frequently used in political ads and documentaries, the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk. It's the same model that John McCain was shot down in Vietnam. Marty Malone restored this one. He points to the words "Catapult Weight," stenciled right under the cockpit. It is here that an aircraft carrier crewman would have listed the plane's weight in order to calibrate the sling's tension for a safe launch off the deck. Too much tension, Marty explains, and the plane is damaged. Too little and it slides off the deck and into the water. Marty contacted the Navy to make sure all the lettering and markings for this exact plane were accurate.
Mario shows me the hulking shell of MIM-14 Nike Hercules and the Ajax surface to air missiles. Both were designed to take down planes and could reach 150,000 feet. Mario is fixing the fins and memorialized the Ajax missile with a new coat of army olive drab paint. "I want them to look awesome."
The HARP volunteers operate with little funding, as evidenced by a roof that leaks in so many places that it seems like the tarps protecting the planes are part of the exhibitions. The rain mixes with musty and acrid smell of grease and metal. Jules Hanlon, an energetic booster of the HARP Angels, aims to fix this problem and plans to start a foundation for that goal.
NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering majors Matt Labella and Roger Greber were drawn to this pre-digital technology and have been initiated as the "new blood" for the HARP volunteers. The students have been repairing the engine of a WWII era ambulance and have it running, and they show me the moving parts of the vehicle. I asked if the two of them have taken the truck out for a spin. Matt said of the older volunteers, "They won't let us have the keys."
Hangar B is open Tuesdays, Thursday, Saturday 9am-3pm, with ranger guided tours on Thursdays and Sundays from 2pm to 3:30pm, during summer months. For group tours call 718-338-3799.
Ben Pomeroy is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Bon Appetit, The Week and Gawker's Dodge and Burn. He co-produced the environmental podcast Now or Never and wrote a home-chef column for the dating site How About We. Read his blog here.