Wednesday, February 8, 2017

All The Rockets Rusting: The Air Power Park in Hampton, Virginia

A-7E Corsair II
Yesterday Lucy and I visited the Air Power Park in Hampton for the first time in nearly thirty years, and what started out to be a bittersweet sort of reunion ended up becoming something very different for me.  The old place hasn't changed very much since 1987--nor, for that matter, since my very first exploration of the Park as a little boy in the late 1960s--and what changes have occurred over the years have been primarily negative, especially as regards the outdoor exhibits.
Jupiter C IRBM (Lucy for scale)
A little background: the Air Power Park commemorates Hampton's role in the development of air and space technology at Langley Research Center, both under NACA and NASA from the 1950s onward. It lies on 15 acres of land just off Mercury Boulevard, and consists of a single-building museum (containing mostly professional and amateur models of aircraft and space vehicles) and nearly two dozen aircraft, military missiles and test launch vehicles arranged outside, representing the "glory days" of the 1950s and '60s.  While representing aerospace history in the area, the Park is not formally associated with NASA or the Air Force; being operated by Hampton Parks and Recreation.
Jupiter C Thrust Bell and Engine
I've driven by the park many times over the years since our last visit, often noting how small it seems from the roadway, how--like the history it represents--it has faded and become part of the background "noise" of a busy thoroughfare.  The fact that I can be the profound space-geek that I am and only manage to actually visit the place twice in three decades seems revealing, in that this dusty, rusty display is easy, in this era of YouTube and Wikipedia, to simply pass on by.
USAF F-105D Thunderchief
But there are jewels to be found here, in this dusty attic of aerospace!  A pair of forgotten Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, a Jupiter C and Corporal from the 1950s, loom over the park as a stumpy Little Joe test launch vehicle from the Mercury Program stands seemingly prepared to hurl its tiny payload aloft. A number of vintage fighter-bombers and military training aircraft await their next missions, while Surface-To-Air missiles wait on their launchers, standing by to defend America's cities from Communist assault.
Little Joe with Mercury test capsule
Listen!  Imagine for a moment the scream of fifty jet engines, the roar from a dozen rocket nozzles...ghosts from the past seem to tremble as the power builds and builds...and then the engines, the bell housings, fall silent.  The flaps are still, cockpits long sealed, hardpoints and nosecones clear of ordnance or scientific payload.  For a few seconds your imagination joined mine as ghosts from the past came to furious life, but now all is still, the only sounds the rumble and whine of constant traffic on the roadway nearby.
USAF RF-4C Recon Phantom II
Saddest of the day's observations were of the deteriorating condition of several of the outdoor exhibits.  All could use a good cleaning and fresh coat of enamel, but some have borne the years with dignity and stamina, others have been less fortunate.  The key seems to lie in their presentations; aircraft and rockets that are displayed on concrete "aprons" or on pedestals are standing the years in far better condition than those in direct contact with the Virginia soil; in these unfortunately-placed machines--most especially the wonderful Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules SAMs--rust and corrosion have wreaked terrible, perhaps even fatal, wounds.
Nike Ajax SAM and Launcher
Once they defended our Nation against real and imaginary enemy they decompose from their bases up.  Both of these missiles were long ago placed, with their launcher assemblies, on the moist ground, and today those launchers are almost completely rusted-away while the missiles themselves are in rapid decay.

I'll not bother asking why long-retired curators saw fit to expose these once-fearsome weapons to the elements in so callous a fashion.  I will, however, stand and ask that measures be taken--and soon--for their restoration and preservation.  These are rare, nigh-priceless relics of the Cold War; if at all possible they must be saved from the literal dustbin of history!

And the Park itself?  Is it relevant in our modern world to preserve these pieces of aerospace history? Should we endeavor to preserve the past or simply stand back and watch as that past rusts and corrodes away?  I think history IS relevant, and rather than witnessing the slow death of these exhibits we should work to preserve these airframes.  Not only that, we should ADD to their numbers; it has been too long since a new aircraft, missile or booster rocket has been added to this collection.

I think it's past time for an upgrade.
Nike Hercules SAM and Launcher

I have come to the Air Power Park today for purposes of nostalgic recollection; to remember for a time that long ago day when a small boy stood in the rain and gazed in wonder at shining aircraft and impossibly-tall rockets.  Leaving by the rusted gate, my purpose is changed; I intend to speak for the silent ghosts that stand guard; I'll try to save the rusting rockets and work to bring new vehicles to join them on these acres.  Perhaps I'll fail in this pursuit--it certainly won't be easy--but I'll give it my best effort.

In this area, rich in aviation history and military--both active duty and retired--I ought to be able to find others interested in re-invigorating the Air Power Park.  I think it's time to get busy.

U.S. Army Corporal IRBM

The Author and a Mercury Capsule "Test Unit"


  1. Good luck with your efforts to organize a restoration and preservation effort. It is a lot of work! It is probably worth reaching out to some veterans organizations in the area for volunteers. You might be able to get donations of materials (like paint) and bodies for community service time from some of the local military bases. Local home improvement stores (like Home Depot) could be good sources for materials too. Both the military and stores like good community PR stories for the local news. But a lot depends on how cooperative the Parks Department wants to be.

    1. Thanks, Dave! I'm talking to Parks people today.

  2. There is great potential in your post as an OpEd for the local paper(s), Tom, it is very well-written!

  3. Thank you! I used to write a lot more years ago; this blog is my way to get back into it. Appreciate your comments (and criticisms) when you read my poor efforts!

  4. Tom, you can also contact the local TV stations. WAVY "10 on Your Side", or WTKR-TV3 and WVEC-TV13. Or even WHRO, the local PBS station.