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Hundreds Turn Out for Air Base Final Flight Ceremony

Operations at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base will cease Sept. 15.

Wednesday marked the end of a 68-year era for , as military planes took their final flights.

Several hundred veterans, local residents and dignitaries filled the air base’s hangar for the disestablishment ceremony in preparation for the base’s complete closure Sept. 15.

Navy Vice Admiral Dirk J. Debbink said the base has played an important role in the lives of military personnel, as well as the community as a whole since its establishment as Naval Air Station Willow Grove in 1943.

“Willow Grove represented the kind of neighborhood base that’s part of the community,” Debbink said during the hour-long ceremony, which featured flag presentations and performances by the military band. “Even to newcomers, Willow Grove felt like home … A lot of people had the best days of their lives at this station.”

Debbink said the air base was a favored place for 1,300 active duty servicemen and women, and 726 civilians, to call home, work and a drill site.

“How cool is that?” Debbink said.

Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Debbink said more than 4,000 military personnel have been deployed from the base to Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Lots of tearful sendoffs,” he said. “Lots of joyful reunions.”

Following the patriotic ceremony, Horsham resident Maggie Tiller was overcome by emotion while watching the planes deploy on their final flights.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” said Tiller, whose father is a WWII veteran. “I see (the base) as safety. It’s security for me.”

Its impending closure marks a closed chapter in history.

“The young that are coming up now don’t realize how important it is,” Tiller said, her eyes red from crying.

Prior to being converted to a military airfield in 1943, the massive site—which today totals 1,100 acres—was owned by famed aviator Harold Pitcairn, who designed, built, tested and flew various aircraft there.

Once the land was transferred from Pitcairn to the government in the early 1940s, the property became the deployment site for thousands of military personnel during the peak of WWII, according to the base's history

In 1994, the base was renamed Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove to reflect the operations of the Air Force, Pennsylvania Air National Guard, Navy, Army and Marine Corps. 

Following the military's final departure in September, the base will see new life again as the Horsham Land Reuse Authority leads the charge to redevelop nearly 900 acres of the property.

Al Pasquale, of Jeffersonville, served for a short time at the base in the late 1950s en route overseas.

“It’s a special day,” Pasquale said, wearing his red Marine hat proudly. “It’s sad. It’s unfortunate it’s closing. It’s going to affect the economy of the region.”

Retired Army Nurse Corps Col. Julia Paparella and her husband, Benedict, a WWII veteran, traveled from Villanova for Wednesday’s ceremony.

“It’s a tragedy,” Mrs. Paparella said of the base’s closing. “It’s just like going to a funeral—worse than that.”

Following the flights Wednesday, a Navy official said the runway lights would be extinguished for the final time. 

Ruth Z. Deming March 31, 2011 at 11:05 AM
nice remembrance of the navy base, theresa. great photos and videos! the shot of the 'ears on' sign reminded me of all the air shows my family and i loved. one time my son and i stood up at the fence for the blue angels and the stealth bomber. the noise was deafening. i reached in my pocket and tore up pieces of napkin to stuff in our ears. living in willow grove, we were always shaken by the sound of the planes and those huge sonic booms! i, for one, won't miss it at all.
Scott Johnson March 31, 2011 at 01:37 PM
I'll miss the lite whine of the A-10 engine and the bass thumps of the helicopters. Having the base nearby always gave me a appreciation for our armed forces and the people who risk their lives to serve our country. It's sad that most of the military's presence has left the Northeast. It will definitely lessen this area's connection to our reserves. Which is unfortunate.
Ted Taylor March 31, 2011 at 01:48 PM
I hope all of you who are happy over the departure of the air base will never find yourself in need of it. For years I have been amazed at the number of Horsham residents who griped about the base - but knew it was there when they moved to the township. It's another case of selfish "me'ism" trumping what is good for the borader area. I hope they maintain the air strip and the ability to land larger aircraft there in the case of an emergency. I have lots of great memories of the air base - and yes the planes flew over my house in Abington, too. But you know what? It was reassuring to know that our defenses were up. Reservists make many sacrifices that the general public doesn't know, or likely, care about. By moving them to New Jersey (McGuire) we just made their lives a little more difficult and, surely, some will end their service on the premise that no one really appreciates in the first place.
Carol DiJoseph March 31, 2011 at 04:02 PM
Growing up in the shadow of the base, my memories are many and varied. A sense of security and a pride in the military were occasionally offset by unfortunate crashes starting with the one on my grandfather's farm on Dresher Road in the '40's. However no one who thrilled to the daring feats of the Blue Angels, shivered from the monstrous roar of the powerful engines, or tried without success to explain why the Willow Grove Base was in Horsham and not Willow Grove can ever deny the influence this installation had on the culture of Horsham and the lives of its residents for many. many years.
Mike Guckin March 31, 2011 at 07:51 PM
I am afraid for those who wanted to see the base gone, this will be a case of regreting what you wished for. The most likely use for a piece of land this size is something akin to a Wal-mart SuperCenter with thousands of cars a day on the local roads. If you think, as the township alluded to, that it will be homes, realize that there is not a single home on Route 611 from one end of Horsham to the other. We have, however, while celebrating the departure of our military, managed to approve the doubling of the size of Double Visions, so we can boast one of the finest strip joints in the area.
KR March 31, 2011 at 10:42 PM
I agree with Mike, and I've posted a comment on a related article regarding the lost aviation and technology jobs from the local area (we even trained the original Mercury astronauts here!), the loss of the base's tax money that will not be made up for if it becomes homes or dollar stores, and the likely sustained increase in local traffic. I really hope it stays an airport, and that we can attract some good aviation and technology companies.
Steve A April 01, 2011 at 02:09 AM
Just a Sad Day. I will miss the thrills of the Air Shows and the older classic planes & jets as they flew in or departed the Air Shows. Also, the pride of Air Force One using the Base whenever the President visited the area. It was also always great to speak to Base personnel whenever I ran into them patronizing local businesses. The runway is a very valuable asset that should always be preserved for any future emergencies. Steve A
Flossy Whetstone April 25, 2011 at 04:06 PM
I am all for keeping the air strips. When I was young and lived in Philly my brother would bring us up here quit often to see shows or just look at the planes. Now, my husband is retired military, Navy, Marines and Army National Guard. We recently moved here and love the area. We enjoyed going to the base and very grateful for the use of the buildings. It was a big help to the men and woman who served our country. Why are people complaining about it? Anyone who lives here knew what was here when they moved here. As my husband says ,"the sound of the planes is the sound of freedom". I hope those who are oposed don't live to regeret it.

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