All photos by Stacy Tillilie
Just a pebble’s throw from the Wildwood and Cape May beaches, tucked among boxes of municipal buildings, and sharing real estate with the bustling Cape May Airport is a historic hangar that holds a trove of fascinating aviation history, meriting a visit even on the sunniest of beach days. For it was here at the Naval Air Station Wildwood in Rio Grande, New Jersey, that U.S. Naval Aviators engaged in World War II active dive-bombing training from April 1943 to February 1946. Tragically, 129 crashes occurred on or around the base, and 42 airmen lost their lives while training.
In 1997, a nonprofit foundation was formed to restore the station’s last surviving major structure, Hangar No. 1, as a memorial to those courageous airmen. Today, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as the 92,000-square-foot Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum, presenting 26 aircraft—from jets to propeller planes to helicopters—as well as military vehicles and artifacts, interactive exhibits, 1940s memorabilia and more.
Want an up-close, 360-degree look at an F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-14 Tomcat or TBM Avenger, which—a rarity for an aircraft—also claims a spot on the National Register of Historic Places? How about checking out a MIG-15, A-4 Skyhawk or V-2 Rocket replica? Forget being separated from the aircraft with walled glass or velvet ropes; most of the museum’s aircraft have steps leading right up to the cockpit, offering privileged views of the navigation system, pilot seats and passenger areas—even mannequins dressed in airmen uniforms.
Even if you don’t know the difference between an AH-1 Cobra and an OE-2 Bird Dog, you’ll appreciate the “All Available Boats” exhibit honoring heroes who helped people evacuate by boat on September 11; a Coast Guard Area, complete with a patrol boat and an HH-52A Seaguard helicopter; and the 1940s Room, furnished in WWII-era fashion—think kitchen appliances, musical instruments and furniture—for a snapshot of a typical American household of the times.
History buffs and techies alike will enjoy exploring the Radio Room, chockful of 1940s-era communication devices, and displays that feature everything from cannons and weapons, to an enigma machine and a Norden bombsight, to airplane engines and even love letters written by airmen and their families during the war.
And children will have a blast playing flight simulator games, pretending to be air traffic controllers in an authentic air traffic tower, and testing out the science of flight in hands-on exhibits, some of which were donated from The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. The museum also hosts summer festivals, making for the perfect time to fly by.
What: Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum
Where: 500 Forrestal Road, Cape May Airport, Rio Grande, New Jersey
When: April 1–October 14, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; October 15–November 30, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.; December 1–March 31, Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Group tours are available by reservation. (Note that the hangar is not heated.)
How much: $14 for adults, $10 for children ages 3–12, free for children ages 2 and under, and free for active-duty military with ID
For more information: 609/886-8787 or usnasw.org
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of AAA World.