Pair hope plan to expand aviation museum takes off

Standing amid huge refurbished vintage war aircraft at the Harold F. Pitcairn Wings of Freedom Museum, Alfred "Fred" Hagen and Maj. Gen. Ronald Nelson look quite average.

But their passion to keep the historic aircraft there is anything but.

Hagen wants to expand the museum - which includes aircraft ranging from a German Messerschmitt Me 262, the first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft used in World War II, to a restored Bell H-13 chopper, the type seen in the opening credits of "M*A*S*H" - and turn it into a world-class flight museum rivaling the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

"I want to stand up and try to preserve something for future generations," said Hagen, who runs a construction business in Bensalem. "We certainly don't need another shopping mall on 611."

The museum sits on the grounds of Willow Grove Naval Air Station, on Route 611 in Horsham, Montgomery County. The base is scheduled to close next year.

The Navy recently declared the base as surplus and turned it over to Horsham Township for redevelopment. But unless the museum is granted a sublease for the land, it could close along with the base.

Hagen introduced himself to Nelson in May and told him his vision for the museum, which is run by the Delaware Valley Historical Aircraft Association. Nelson is president of the group, and Hagen is a board member.

"I invited him up to tell us what his thoughts were," Nelson said. "We're always looking for people with a love of aircrafts and old aircrafts."

Hagen wants to take over any available hangar space and expand the aircraft collection. He also wants to educate visitors on topics such as aerodynamics.

At the moment, Hagen said, "there's not even enough room to preserve and display the aircraft we have."

The museum has about five acres and houses flight simulators as well as displays dedicated to World War I, World War II, the Cold War, the Tuskegee Airmen and women in aviation.

Additionally, an open field is used to display 10 aircraft, including an A-4, a carrier-based ground-attack aircraft and an SH-2, a ship-based helicopter with anti-submarine and anti-surface threat capability. Both types of aircraft were used in Vietnam, Nelson said.

Mike McGee, executive director of the Horsham Township Land Reuse Authority, said that his agency supports trying to keep the museum where it is.

"The LRA has met with the folks from the DVHAA and we've toured the facility, and in principle we are very supportive of the concept," McGee said.

The LRA is working to come up with a reuse plan for the base, which has to be approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Defense, according to township manager William Walker.

Even if both agencies approve, it could take up to three years for a plan to be implemented, Walker said.

In the meantime, the LRA has to enter into a lease with the Department of the Navy for the facilities and property that the museum wants to stay in, even on a temporary basis, Walker said. Then the LRA has to enter into a sublease with the museum.

Walker said that the museum should be working to submit an official notice of interest - Nelson says it has already started - and getting a lease approved.

Whatever happens, Hagen and Nelson's passion to keep the museum is unwavering.

"A lot of the background and development of aviation came right through this area," Nelson said.

For instance, the first helicopter and the first propeller-driven fixed-wing airplane were developed at Willow Grove, and Amelia Earhart flew out of the station, Nelson said.

"I think that it's pretty doggone important to keep this alive," he said.