They dressed in their old military uniforms and hats. They shared stories of battles fought, lives lost and missions accomplished. They displayed photos of themselves, from decades earlier as soldiers, clad in camouflage, squinting at the camera.
But, mostly, they talked about the planes. What it was like to fly everything from a T-34, T-28 and a C-1 to “MASH” style helicopters.
In the aviation home where Harold F. Pitcairn first flew and manufactured his autogiro, members of the Delaware Valley Historical Aircraft Association - the nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving his history - reminisced, showed off plane cockpits and welcomed visitors during an open house Friday as part of the Willow Grove 300 festivities.
“People have no idea what happened here,” said DVHAA board member Kurt Wecker, adding that the group is fighting to keep Pitcairn’s history alive amid closure of the and with the Horsham Land Reuse Authority. “Once the history’s gone, it’s gone.”
But, on Friday at least, that history was alive and well as dozens of retired military and volunteer docents – or storytellers – showed film footage, recounted aviation highlights and of course, paid tribute to Pitcairn and the flight advances he made prior to the land being turned over to the military during World War II.
“The Willow Grove air base was such an important part of Willow Grove’s history,” said Virginia Brooke, DVHAA’s administrative coordinator, who helped to organize Friday’s open house. “And, you don’t have to know anything about airplanes.”
Perhaps a bigger job than being knowledgeable about, or actually flying a plane, is historically restoring aircraft that will never fly again. Joe Meyers, a DVHAA volunteer who restores planes, said finding parts for an old plane that’s no longer made amounts to making parts by hand.
“Car buffs, they have that knowledge of how to make things,” said Meyers, adding that about half of the restorers are car enthusiasts. “We go to machine shops and tell them what we need.”
Restoration can cost up to $20,000 for parts - not including the upwards of 1,000 man hours that volunteers put in, “just because we love aviation,” Meyers said.
The sentiment was not lost on Bill Pompilii, of Warminster, who toured the grounds Friday with two fellow plane enthusiasts, all part of a radio-controlled airplane flying club. Pompilii recalled attending air shows at the air base and said it’s “very sad” that those days are now in the past.
Looking to the future, Meyers said DVHAA hopes to one day display aircraft from the Pitcairn family, an obvious omission to the museum’s roughly 15 aircraft inventory.
“Obviously, to have one of their aircraft would be very exciting,” Meyers said. “We’re not just trying to keep machines alive. We’re trying to keep Pitcairn alive.”