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Air museum puts flight in perspective

June 26, 2011

NORTH KINGSTOWN – When visitors pour into the Quonset Air Museum this weekend they will see everything from a small balsa wood model of the Wright Brothers’ plane in a showcase to the giant TBM-3 Avenger – the same type of aircraft George H.W. Bush bailed out of as it crashed into the sea during World War II.
Although it’s open year round, this tribute to the history and genius of aircraft design receives its biggest audience – upwards of 1,000 – during the Quonset Air Show. This year’s event, celebrating the centennial of Naval aviation, starts at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
While the air show will feature such exciting elements as performances by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels precision flying squad, the Red Bull Aerobatic Helicopter, the Black Daggers Jump Team, several stunt pilots and demonstrations of several military aircraft, the Quonset Air Museum is a treasure trove of unexpected delights.
There are the actual F-14 Tomcat famously “piloted” in the movie “Top Gun” and the Grumman A-16 Intruder, both still owned by the Navy and flown into Quonset for display. The museum has a total of 18 aircraft, a Nike-Hercules missile used for air defense during the Cold War, a Chinese Silkworm missile, an Australian self-propelled gun resembling a tank, a radar display and a variety of engines, parts and exhibits.
Tour guide Mike Pignataro, a veteran of Navy submarine service and an Army helicopter pilot with the 1st Cavalry in the Vietnam War, is vice president of the museum and a member of its board. His personal history is emblematic of how wartime skills translate to peacetime and – sometimes eerily – back to enemy attack.
“I moved here five years ago,” he says. “I had flown for the New York Port Authority and was there for 9-11. My job was to fly over with body bags and airpacks. There were no bodies. When I left, on April 30, 2004, I was still flying 12 hours days, six days a week. I flew in the Secret Service, FBI.”
The next day Pignataro started as a captain for Prudential Insurance. As he takes visitors around the museum hangar and outdoor space, he offers keen insight into the kinds of assignments the various aircraft carried out.
The TBM-3 Avenger, he explains, was a torpedo bomber, “one of the biggest to fly off a carrier”; the Sea King anti-submarine helicopter is “the Navy version of the President’s helicopter”; the Curtis Wright XF15C-1 plane is “one of a kind. Only three were made.”
Veterans who nostalgically recall the heyday of the Quonset Naval Air Station can inspect the Grumman C1-A Trader. When the base was closing, Pignataro says, “It was the last aircraft to take off from Quonset, flown by the [air station] commander.”
Visitors, who get in free during the air show, will especially want to see the Sikorsky Black Hawk chopper, the same model – outfitted with cutting edge intelligence-gathering and maneuverability equipment – used by the Navy SEALS when they landed inside Osama bin Laden’s compound.
One of the charms of the museum is the fact that teams of volunteers have made restoring the planes, most obtained from military surplus, a labor of love.
The self-propelled field gun, for instance, was done by a husband and wife team. A father-son duo, Rick and Nick LaPierre, of Tiverton, refurbished a Douglas A-4 and a MIG 17; now they’ve started work on a McDonnell F-4 Phantom. The Sea King helicopter was painted by a 20-year-old and his girlfriend.
Pignataro says the museum’s fortunes have been turned around thanks to the leadership of its president Dave Payne, a businessman, who has “brought it from deep red [financially] to the black. He has done a phenomenal job.”
Supported by memberships, admission fees and a few small grants, the museum has put on a new $100,000 roof and a back room has been outfitted as a “ready room” on a World War II B-17. “We have a lot of birthday parties there,” says Pignataro. “The kids love it.”
Among the most mysterious of the museum’s artifacts are the remnants of a downed Hellcat, part of a Night Air Combat Training Unit that had flown out of Charlestown on April 3, 1945. The engine seized above Nantucket Sound, never making it to a small Navy auxiliary landing field. The aircraft sank in one minute; the pilot was spotted several times but never rescued.
The plane’s wreckage, rusted and covered with seaweed and other debris, was recovered by the Quonset Air Museum in the spring of 1994. It is on display at the back of the hangar where volunteers have been working to rebuild and restore it.
Pignataro says museum stalwarts have been preparing the aircraft for the weekend’s big surge. “A tractor pulls them out and we wash and dust them. They all weigh 12,000 pounds-plus; the F-14 is 35,000 pounds empty.”
Visitors will be able to sit in the cockpits and pose for photographs with the museum’s aircraft. There is no admission charge during the air show; normally the fee is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and $3 for children 12 and under.
The Quonset Air Museum is open 10-3 seven days a week and on weekends only from October to March.

Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers and can be reached at mgs3dachs@cox.net.

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