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Abandoned historic U.S. Naval Air Station can be found in Michigan

June 2020

Directly to the south of Detroit, Michigan, is a small general aviation airport that dates back to the early days of naval aviation in the United States. It was here in 1927 that the U.S. Navy Reserve established a training base for naval aviators.

Naval Reserve Air Station Grosse Ile was established at the Grosse Ile Airport in 1927, with the official commissioning on 7 September 1929. In the first year of operation for the training school, the navy reservists had no aircraft to conduct training, leaving the trainees only classroom instruction, until their first aircraft, a single Consolidated NY-1, arrived.

The base utilized a single tin hangar that had been floated down the Detroit River from the former home of the Detroit Naval Air Reserves’ former home near downtown Detroit. Seaplane facilities were also added.

The airport was originally opened on 15 November 1926 by the Detroit Aircraft Corporation on the southern tip of Grosse Ile, and originally had a circular landing field of 3,00 feet in diameter, along with an airship hangar. Detroit Aircraft undertook construction of “metal-clad” airships (blimps) for commercial, military and naval uses.

The only all-metal airship that the U.S. ever used, the ZMC-2, was built at Grosse Ile between 1925 to 1929 by Detroit Aircraft. The hangar where the airship was constructed measured 120 feet high, 120 feet wide and 180 feet long, and was the largest structure on the base until it was dismantled in 1960.

The Curtis-Wright Corporation also had a flying school at the airport, but by 1935, both were gone (Detroit Aircraft went into receivership in 1931), and the U.S. Navy took over their facilities.

During World War II, NAS Grosse Ile was one of the largest primary flight training stations for Naval aviators, along with pilots for the Royal Air Force. Two concrete paved runways were built around the original circular landing field: 4/22 measuring 4,846 x 100 feet and 17/35 measuring 4,425 x 75 feet.

Among the aircraft flown by The student pilots trained in the North American Aviation T-6 Texan and the Stearing (Boeing) Model 75 bi-plane. Other aircraft seen at Grosse Ile during WWII included Consolidated PYB Catalina, Vought FU4 Corsairs, Curtiss SB2C Helldivers, and Grumman TBM Avengers.

Some of the famous alumni from the station during WWII include game show host Bob Barker, President George H.W. Bush, who was training at Grosse Ile with VT-152 Torpedo Squadron in September 1945 for the invasion of mainland Japan, when the war ended. Bush was discharged from active service later that month, but remained in the U.S. Navy Reserve until 1955.

Future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld served at Grosse Ile in the early 1960s with VS-731 Anti-Submarine Squadron, where he flew the S2F Grumman Tracker.

After WWII ended, the station was equipped with several squadrons of the of the Martin AM Maulers and briefly, the McDonnel FH-1 Phantom, the only jet fighter to be based at Grosse Ile, as the base’s runways were too short for the newer and faster jet fighters being used by the U.S. Navy.

With the municipality refusing permission to expand the runways, NAS Grosse Ile took on an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) training role in the 1950s, with A-1 Skyraiders and S2F anti-submarine warfare aircraft flying in and out of the station, along with Marine Corps Reserve R40 and R5D cargo aircraft.

A small number of helicopters operated out of NAS Grosse Ile by the late 1950s, with aircrews using the Piasecki H-25 and later upgraded to the HSS-1 Seabat.

As there was no U.S. Coast Guard station in the area, helicopters from NAS Grosse Ile regularly assumed this role for rescue operations on Lake Erie and the Detroit River.

In 1956, the U.S. Army established a Nike missile site, designated D-51, at Grosse Ile, armed with three Nike Ajax SAM missiles housed in underground silos, to defend the Detroit Sector. The army contingent received support from NAS Grosse Ile, who provided messes and housing facilities.

Nike site D-51 had a brief life, and the site was deactivated in 1963, prior to the introduction of the nuclear-armed Nike Hercules missiles.

By the 1960, over 2000 Navy and Marine Reservists were training at the base, utilizing the A-1 Skyraider and S-2 Tracker aircraft (for the navy) and OV-10 Bronco (for the marines). Many of the personnel from NAS Grosse Ile would go on to serve in Vietnam. Future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a U.S. Navy Reserve Lieutenant, was designated an aircraft commander with VS-71 Air Anti-Submarine Squadron on 1 October 1960, and flew Trackers from Grosse Ile.

As the 1960s drew to a close, the need for NAS Grosse Ile had diminished and as a result, the base closed in the fall of 1969. The base’s functions were taken over by the newly established Naval Air Facility Detroit, which was based at what was then Selfridge Air Force Base, now known as Selfridge Air National Guard Base, just north of Detroit.

The airfield was turned over to the Township of Grosse Ile in 1971 and converted into a general aviation airport.

Some of the former navy and marine buildings remain, mostly on the south Groh Road, including the historic Hanger #1, which now serves as the Grosse Ile Township Hall.

The original Curtiss-Wright flying school hangar also remains, as does the original tin hangar floated down the Detroit River in 1927.

Nothing remains of the Nike missile site. The missile silos were filled-in and the launch area is now a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service conservation area and bird sanctuary. The buildings at the operations site on Groh Road were demolished and it’s now a storage area.

A memorial garden sits directly behind Township Hall, to honour all the men and women who served at NAS Grosse Ile.

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naval_Air_Station_Grosse_Ile, http://nasgi.net/index.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grosse_Ile_Municipal_Airport, https://www.grosseile.com/government/Index/index.php, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_H._W._Bush#World_War_II, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Rumsfeld

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/abandoned-historic-u-s-naval-air-station-can-be-found-in-michigan/

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