LEONARDTOWN – Patuxent River Naval Air Station Museum bristles with Navy achievements past — powerful jets, including the joint strike fighter concept planes X-32B and X-35C — all maintained by the Navy and berthed just a stone’s throw away at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
But Pax River, as the base is known, represents the Navy’s future.
Behind the base gates, said L.F. “Gus” Eggert, a retired rear admiral and president of the museum association, is “the one stop for aircraft and aircraft system research, development, test and evaluation . . . It is all done here. This is a national asset.”
It is inconceivable to the bucolic farm community surrounding the base, to those at the new stores in Leonardtown or even to those like Eggert, who are independent, yet interdependent, on the base that it could possibly close in the upcoming Base Realignment and Closure round.
The museum, which displays what once were the Navy’s greatest aircraft and which hopes to display its future achievements, is so optimistic about the base’s future that, with the county and state, it is building a new home.
“I certainly don’t believe the base will close,” Eggert said. The base may undergo some realignment of activity, just like the rest of the community has since the last BRAC.
His museum is housed in temporary quarters, a low-slung building attached to a large, cavernous warehouse. The association is planning a bigger facility in front of its current site because its old home was demolished when the county widened Route 235, which runs parallel to the base.
Pax River has benefited from base closures before. It was commissioned in 1953, when five bases closed. Then in the 1990s, BRAC restructuring brought more units to the base, like the Naval Air Systems Command, which moved to Pax River from Arlington, Va., in 1996. Major facilities were consolidated at the time, like the Naval Aviation Research, Development, Test and Evaluation unit from Warminster, Pa., and Trenton, N.J.
“No,” said T.L. “Toby” van Esselstyn the museum’s director, about the possibility of the base closing. “In their infinite wisdom they have moved things here. . . . Roughly one third of all astronauts have gone through the (test) pilot school at Pax River.”
A lot of businesses sprang up after the last BRAC realignment when multiple other installations were closed and the activities were transferred to Pax River.
The Leonardtown Starbucks, about a mile from the base, is just over three years old in a relatively new mini-mall, in front of another new mall that was built just a year before. Shopping choices abound on the 235 strip: multiple grocery stores, mega-stores like Wal-Mart, Target and Lowe’s Home Improvement.
The businesses are evidence of the economic symbiosis created by military installations.
“The economic base of the community has really been defense technology,” said John Savich the director of economic and community development for St. Mary’s County. “I say that because it is not just a military base, it is a technology base for the Navy with a lot of private-sector firms outside the base that work with the Navy.”
Pax River is the largest employer in St. Mary’s County. Its workers travel from as far away as Virginia, but most live in St. Mary’s and nearby Charles and Calvert counties.
“It would be astonishing if the Department of Defense decided to close it,” Savich said.
Inside the base, a hangar was just completed to house the evaluation of a new presidential helicopter. The new strike fighter and Multi-Mission Maritime Aircraft, or MMA, are coming.
The base has the ability to manufacture any part and it sports multiple laboratories that test everything from the composition of paint to impact studies from crashes. There is a tower that monitors flights, recording every aspect of the test and presenting the client with results.
The museum shows off a 25-year collection of Navy innovation — a tradition that’s unlikely to go anywhere else.
“The impact would really be countywide and region-wide,” Savich said. “It is a bigger part of the state economy than the Port of Baltimore, $3 billion in statewide economic impact, just from Pax. Since the base has been there it has been a really big part of the community.”