Historical Markers
Johnsville Naval Air Development Center Historical Marker
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Johnsville Naval Air Development Center

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Newtown and Street Roads, Warminster

Dedication Date:
November 11, 1998

Behind the Marker

Aerial view of the Brewster aircraft factory
Aerial view of the Brewster aircraft factory at Johnsville, Warminster, PA,...
Located about eighteen miles north of downtown Philadelphia and about four miles east of Willow Grove Naval Air Station, Johnsville Naval Air Development Center began as a World War II aircraft factory. Taken over by the Navy in 1943, the site served a variety of aeronautical needs over the next half century.

After the Second World War broke out in Europe in 1939, orders poured into American industries for ships, airplanes, and other defense-related materiel. By 1940, a flurry of orders led the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation, then operating in an old auto factory on Long Island, New York, to purchase 370 acres of farmland in Warminster, Pennsylvania. Less than a year after groundbreaking in March 1941, Brewster was producing Bermuda dive bombers for Great Britain and F2A-2 Buffalo shipboard fighters at its new $9 million plant, named for the nearby town of Johnsville.

Image of a plane in flight.
A Brewster SB2A Buccaneer dive bomber, manufactured in Johnsville, August, 1942.
Later that year, the U.S. Navy awarded Brewster $138.6 million to build 1,500 Vought-designed gull-wing Corsair shipboard fighters (dubbed F4U when they were built by Vought, F3A from Brewster). The Johnsville factory, however, failed to deliver the planes on time, and rumors spread that the company was filling its higher paying foreign orders rather than completing planes for the Navy. After stockholders sued the company, alleging inflated commissions and other shady business practices, the Navy took control of the plant in April 1942. SB2A Buccaneers ordered in 1941, finally started to role off the line in July 1942, but Johnsville produced only 168 by the end of the year.

Navy takeover, however, failed to end problems at the Johnsville plant, where managers accused workers of loafing, union representatives accused the company of unfair hiring and firing, and the planes produced were so bad that flyers nicknamed the F2A-2 Buffalo, the "Flying Coffin." (More recently, an Internet poll listed the F2A-2 Buffalo as the "worst fighter of World War II.")

In April 1943, the Navy turned the Johnsville plant over to prominent industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, whose "can-do" management on the American Liberty ship program was critical to American success during the war. Kaiser management brought better order to the plant, but not enough. The Navy cancelled its order for SB2A Buccaneers, after a congressional investigation found widespread theft of tools and parts, rival work shifts that hid parts from each other, managers so worried about poor construction that they built a device to turn over the planes to shake off loose parts and forgotten tools, and planes intentionally shipped with faulty rudders and engines. Those already built were used only as trainers, or launched into the sea to test catapults on aircraft carriers.

Johnsville continued to build Corsairs, and by December 1943, was turning out seventy a month. When production ended July 1, 1944, the plant had made only 736 of the fighters, not even reaching half the number ordered.

After the war, most American aircraft plants turned from production to research and development. In 1947, the Johnsville plant was converted to the Naval Air Development Station, which conducted research in aviation electronics, unmanned aircraft, medicine, armor, and top-secret weapons experiments with high-caliber machine guns and guided missiles.

Over the next decade, emphasis shifted to the aerospace industry. Pennsylvania contributed to the aerospace industry in a number of small but important ways. Created in 1943, Pennsylvania State University Department of Aerospace Engineering would be recognized by U.S. News and World Report as one of the top eleven aerospace departments in the nation. In Bristol, Kaiser Fleetwings built aircraft components and motor cases for ballistic missiles. At its facility in Quehanna, Curtiss-Wright did rocket engine work in the 1960s. In Pittsburgh, Rockwell International emerged as a leading defense contractor. And in Philadelphia, General Electric conducted missile and space research.

After Johnsville added the Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory, it in 1952 installed video the world's largest human centrifuge to test the effects of G-forces on humans. In 1959, the site became headquarters of the Naval Air Research and Development Activities Command. There, researchers conducted experiments on jet and rocket engines, and the pressure suits used by Project Mercury astronauts. Gemini and Apollo personnel and astronauts, along with X-15 pilots, also trained here, including John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.

Designated a Naval Air Warfare Center, and then known as NAWC Warminster, the facility developed a prototype "black box," best known as the indestructible recorder of cockpit conversations and information in case of accident, and arresting devices to shorten the landing distance of U.S. space shuttles. Other projects, some of them highly classified, included aircraft and equipment for high-altitude photographic surveillance, pilot ejection systems, and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology.

By the early 1990s Johnsville was a massive facility that employed 2,600 workers. National consolidation of military facilities, however, led to is closure in 1996. Some of the Johnsville buildings were demolished in 2001, including the original Brewster hangars. Today, refurbished buildings at Johnsville include an office complex, a retirement village, and a community park. Only a few small towers and decaying runways remain from its aviation days.
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