By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – When Lawrence D. “Larry” Webster was a child growing up in the woods of Charlestown – in the same house he’s occupied all his life – he spent his days watching planes.
“As a little kid, two years old, my parents would sit me out here and I watched hundreds of aircraft flying out of Quonset and Charlestown,” says Webster, who will turn 65 in February. Both naval air stations remained open until 1974.
When he got older, there were still “few houses out here and no one to play with,” he recalls. “My parents told me to go do something.” So he did.
He “watched Corsairs dive bomb Wordens Pond during the Korean War” and, at 14, he made his way to the Streeter Farm – later Camp JORI – where he discovered his first plane wreckage.
Webster dug out parts of a World War II plane and researched everything about it – its history, pilot and all the details of the crash that killed him.
The young air aficionado was hooked.
Today, in his home computer, he has documented more than 11,000 plane wrecks in New England; another 10,000 are recorded on paper, waiting to be entered into his database. They run the gamut from minor accidents to full crashes that claimed lives.
He also became a hunter-gatherer, finding crash sites and bringing home odds and ends of debris ranging in size from small sections of metal bent like accordions to entire wings and engines.
“When you walk onto a crash site, it’s amazing to see,” he says, describing the adrenalin rush of encountering history first-hand.
Over the years, fishermen have given him pieces of wreckage brought up in their nets and hunters have alerted him to plane artifacts they’ve spotted and where to find them. Webster has assembled piles of debris from individual planes and identified every one.
As a result, his large property houses an astonishing array of items that are evidence of things that went terribly wrong during training flights. Some were profoundly tragic.
One in particular has stuck with him.
In his airplane graveyard are parts of a Banshee that flew out of Quonset and was downed in a head-on crash on the night of June 24,1953 during a night practice run. The resulting fireball at 19,000 feet was seen from New London, Conn. to Worcester, Mass.; both pilots died horrifically.
One plane, piloted by U.S. Naval Reserve Lt.(jg) James J. Scholian, fell to earth in Exeter near Austin Farm Road; the other, with Lt. (jg) Jack Oliver Snipes at the controls, plunged into Robin Hollow Pond.
Webster has Snipes’ pilot’s ejection seat, recovered from a rural trailer park where it was being used for a lawn ornament.
Throughout his career as an award-winning mechanical engineer – he retired from Heidelberg-Harris in Pawcatuck, Conn. – Webster's passion for planes has been unwavering. Starting in 1975, for instance, he singlehandedly restored a Grumman Hellcat for the New England Air Museum.
It took 18 years.
In 1989, he and two other men founded the Quonset Air Museum where volunteers have embarked on the restoration of a historic F2H-3 Banshee – the “Big Banjo” – the second of 300 updated models built for the Navy. All were overhauled at Quonset with 39 going to Canada where they were the only jet-powered fighters ever deployed by the Royal Canadian Navy, from 1955 till 1962. Eleven of the aircraft are left.
Built by McDonnell-Douglas, the F2H-3 was one of the primary American fighters used during the Korean War. Its name is derived from the banshee of Celtic mythology.
This particular Banshee fighter was a pre-production model with a long service life, eventually logging 1100 hours. The F2H-3 was the last significantly altered Banshee, made longer to accommodate a bigger fuel tank, more guns and ammunition capacity and a bigger bomb load.
Two-and-a-half years ago, one of Webster’s fellow devotees found the aircraft in the woods of Ohio. After decommissioning, it had been hauled there from Greensboro, N.C. where it was displayed in a park and then shoved into a gully for use as target practice by local cops.
The plane had an illustrious career.
Used by the manufacturer for testing from 1952-54, it was later based at Quonset, Guantanamo, Miramar, aboard the USS Hornet and once again at Quonset. Webster went so far as to locate and speak with one of its pilots, former Lt. J.P. Zebrowski, 83 and living in California, whose faded name can still be seen on the side of the aircraft's nose.
He flew it in spring of 1957, out of Jacksonville, Fla. and off the carrier Roosevelt.
After an overhaul and two other deployments, the plane was sent to Glynco with the other Banshees where it was painted day-glo orange and used for training.
“They took all the engines off and put them on Neptunes,” Webster explains, adding that the air museum has a Neptune – a gigantic aircraft parked outside that can be seen from the roadway.
Webster paid $2,000 for the bullet-riddled remnants and $8,000 to move them to Quonset where museum volunteers are undertaking a complete restoration. “With an airplane this messed up, there’s no [completion] schedule,” he says.
The frame of the Banshee, built in 1952, is complete but it has no engines; Webster is supplying one from his collection and the museum has another. It lacks an instrument panel in the cockpit and a number of small parts, some of which he says “we can manufacture. The rudder is the only major thing missing.”
Sam Lepore, an Air Force veteran of Vietnam and a retired aircraft mechanic, is heading the restoration team. He’s working on the tail cone in the museum’s machine shop, surrounded by shelves of pieces and parts. In a year he has recreated the vertical skin on the vent fin, making it the first piece completely restored.
The Banshee which, over the course of its service time, had four color schemes will be restored with the markings of Snipes’ plane.
Webster is asking that anyone who has Banshee parts consider donating them to the restoration project. For more information, contact the museum at 295-9540.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at email@example.com .