The Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum is a 92,000 square foot hangar at Cape May Airport.
“This is a former naval base. They actually practiced divebomb training here during World War II,” said Bruce Fournier, chief operating officer for the museum. “There was a lot of activity here, believe it or not. In Cape May County, there was close to 17,000 takeoffs and landings in October of 1944. They were prepping for war, these young pilots were getting ready to go to the Pacific theater to fight and at that time our technology was not that good. So there was a lot of pilot error and the aircraft failed, so 42 men died training here. Even today we have remnants, people go combing the beaches or back in the marshes, and even today they are still finding pieces of aircraft from all the accidents that took place here when this was a training center.”
Its mission is to honor the soldiers who died in training, educate the public, and restore the historic all-wooden truss hangar. Orthopedic doctor Joseph Salvatore took on the project in the mid-90s. His family worked there during World War II.
“We found they were going to tear this building down and we asked the county if they would give it to us. They did. They sold it to us for $1. That’s the good news. The bad news is it had a hole in the roof 100 by 150 feet and bird droppings at least 6 inches deep in the whole hangar,” said Salvatore.
An experienced preservationist, Salvatore was undeterred by the massive undertaking. Now their doors are open year round.
The museum has more than 25 different aircraft in the hangar, ranging from World War I through to present day. Some are owned by the museum and others are on loan from the military.
Kids can “fly” many of the aircraft or slide behind the wheel of some of the vehicles. Five-year-old Layla Collins is practicing. She dreams of becoming a pilot.
“I really want to fly one day when I grow up,” she said.
One of the museum’s newest additions is a World War II-era Hellcat, Huey helicopters from the Vietnam War, and a Coast Guard boat and helicopter are open to visitors.
Though kids have plenty of time at the museum to dream about soaring to new heights, the staff hopes everyone walks away with the knowledge that there are stories in each of the cockpits, and there were once Americans inside who put their lives on the line for their country.