BRUNSWICK, Maine – The rumble of Navy patrol aircraft flying overhead will soon be a thing of the past as the remaining P-3 Orions depart from Brunswick Naval Air Station.
While much of the nation prepares for Thanksgiving, air crews from VP-26 are prepping to ship out for a six-month deployment to El Salvador, Italy and the Horn of Africa. After that, they'll rejoin the rest of Brunswick aircraft that have relocated to Florida's Jacksonville Naval Air Station.
Cmdr. Mike Parker, commanding officer of VP-26, begins the final wave of departures on Sunday, marking a milestone in the closing of the last active-duty military air base in New England.
"It's a heartbreaking situation to leave the base knowing that no P-3 is going to return to this base," said Parker. His massive three-bay hangar was filled with equipment being loaded on pallets and sailors getting heavy gear ready to be shipped out starting next week.
Come January, with the aircraft long gone, the twin, 8,000-foot runways will be closed and the snow plows will be idled, allowing snow to pile up on the long expanses. The fuel tank farm will be drained. Through the year, there'll be a gradual drawdown of personnel until the base closes for good by May 2011.
Activity on the sprawling coastal base 20 miles northeast of Portland has been winding down over the past year since the first P-3 Orion squadron departed.
Once there were 4,000 sailors, but the number has dwindled to roughly 500. After VP-26 and its 350 personnel leave, only a skeleton crew will remain.
"It's definitely a ghost town," Cmdr. John Coray, chief staff officer for Patrol Wing 5, said after finding himself alone in the gym during a workout.
Situated on 3,200 acres, Brunswick Naval Air Station opened during World War II to train British and Canadian pilots. After the war, the base was deactivated for a time before the U.S. Navy moved in.
Since then, maritime patrol aircraft including the P-3 Orions, which first flew in the early 1960s, have operated from the base.
They use four turboprop engines that sip fuel, allowing them to fly for 12-hour stretches either over the deep blue ocean hunting enemy submarines, or over land where they've flown missions over Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The base saw its heyday during the Cold War, when the Navy had patrol aircraft stationed at the four corners of the continental United States to interdict Soviet subs.
The decision to shutter Brunswick Naval Air Station was made in the final round of closings by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission in 2005.
The Navy initially wanted to mothball the base, keeping alive the possibility of future activation, but that would've meant an uncertain future in which the community would be unable to redevelop the property. So commissioners decided to shutter the base altogether.
Studies have put the economic impact on the local economy at $187 million. But there's a social impact as well. Base personnel and spouses served as teachers, Sunday School volunteers and Little League coaches. Their children used to fill 20 to 30 percent of the desks in local schools.
"The realization is starting to hit home that the base is closing," said Steve Levesque, executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, which is tasked with finding tenants for the property. "It certainly is an end of an era, with a rich history of naval aviation."
Even though the base won't close until 2011, the redevelopment authority hopes to begin reusing the twin runways for general aviation this summer, Levesque said.
The first tenants are Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which has residential campuses in Florida and Arizona, and Southern Maine Community College, which will open a branch at the base. There also has been talk of Oxford Aviation coming to Brunswick. The company provides custom painting and alterations on private aircraft.
The recession hasn't created the best environment for redeveloping the base, but the redevelopment authority is getting a base that's in shipshape condition.
Before deciding to close the base, the Navy resurfaced the runways, overhauled the control tower and refurbished most of the base housing to the tune of more than $100 million. There are airplane hangars, baseball fields, 700 family homes, a bowling alley, and new townhouses with Corian countertops.
For VP-26, it seems fitting that it's the last squadron to leave Brunswick, since it was the first squadron to call Brunswick home after World War II, Parker said.
Some personnel already have relocated their families to Florida. Others, like Parker, will let their children finish the school year in Maine and move later.
There's real sadness, particularly for those "homesteaders" who've spent multiple deployments in Brunswick because they like it so much. Parker, himself, has spent six years in Brunswick over three separate deployments.
Coray said it'll be a tough adjustment.
"Most people really like Maine and have a real affection for Brunswick. It has been a very challenging change for them, especially the older personnel who've been stationed here before. They've grown roots and they're comfortable. So this has been painful," he said.