PORTSMOUTH NAVAL SHIPYARD

Retired craftsman visits Naval Museum

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Story by Max Lonzanida on 01/07/2019
Outside the gallery of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum are wooden models of an A-6 Intruder and an F-14 Tomcat. From the untrained eye, the 6-foot-long models sitting on polished wood pedestals have a non-descript plastic sheen. Visitors on their way to the museum and staff members who are on their way to the conference room or staff offices seldom give the models a second thought. The models have been there since 2008 and are well over a decade old. Nobody gave them a second look until William Corbell visited the museum.

Corbell, or WC as his friends call him, built the models meticulously out of sugar pine wood back in 1993. Corbell started working for the now decommissioned Naval Aviation Depot Norfolk (NADEP), aboard Naval Station Norfolk as a wood crafter in 1980; and quickly became a pattern maker two years later. He visited the museum and brought in a photo album showing the models being built. He remembers quite vividly how he was commissioned to build the models, and how he kept detailed plans next to his workbench inside one of the NADEP hangars. He recalled vividly how he worked alongside sheet metal workers, electricians, mechanics, and scores of skilled employees to repair tactical aircraft in their hangars. "Basically, if it was something that couldn't be fixed at the squadron; they sent it [aircraft] to us," recalled Corbell as he vividly recollected his years at NADEP to the museum's Deputy Director and Curator Joseph Judge and Lou Gull, a museum volunteer and former NADEP production supervisor.

Corbell spoke highly of the work that was done at NADEP and pointed to the model of the F-14 that he built. "Something like this you don't want to hurry on; they were built to last" said Cordell as he ran his hand across the decades old model of the F-14 that he built. He also pointed to a time capsule that was bored inside of the fuselage, and jokingly said that he put in a leave slip in the capsule thinking that someone in the distant future would approve it. The models, according to Corbell and Gull, were transported to another aviation depot in Florida after 1996 when NADEP closed. They were eventually accessioned into the collections at the Naval Museum. And in true fashion, the wood and fiberglass models withstood the ageless test of time.

NADEP filled the US Navy's need for depot level maintenance and repair work on aircraft from 1917 through 1996. According to a decommissioning booklet in the archives of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (abbreviated):

"For almost 80 years, the master mechanics and engineers at the Naval Aviation Depot kept U.S. Naval aviators flying with confidence in their craft. In 1917, this facility originated as the Construction and Repair Department of a military detachment at the Norfolk Navy Operating Base. Its first mission was supporting seaplane and dirigible operations during World War I.

During World War II, the department grew to over 8,000 workers operating seven days a week. In 1948, the facility was renamed the Overhaul and Repair (O and R) Department and received the Navy's first jet aircraft for repair.

In 1967, O and R became the Naval Air Rework Facility (NARF), Norfolk. During the Vietnam War, NARF kept the Navy's A-6 Intruders, P-3 Orion's, F-8 Crusaders, and P-2 Neptunes in top shape.

In 1987, NARF became Naval Aviation Depot (NADEP) Norfolk. NADEP's workers, skilled in over 80 trades, became known for award-winning excellence. During the 1991 Gulf War, on aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, the Depot's voyage repair Tiger Teams' worked around the clock to keep catapult and arresting gear running."

In 1993, the Base Realignment and Closure Convention voted to decommission the facility. It was finally decommissioned in a ceremony on September 25, 1996; which was attended by flag officers, former and current NADEP employees, and Naval Aviators both past and present, and members of the community. By that time, many NADEP employees had sought employment elsewhere; as was the case with Cordell, who completed his federal service as a skilled woodworker at nearby Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia.

For now, the detailed models of the Tomcat and Intruder sit idly by outside the Naval Museum. Corbell's visit shed some new light to the skill and dedication that is needed to build something entirely from scratch; an considering an era when scale models can be replicated with a 3-D printer.

NADEP Norfolk had its own Creed, which reads in part:
"Somebody said NADEP Norfolk couldn't do it, but our workers with a chuckle replied; That maybe they couldn't' but that they'd be the ones who wouldn't say so till they tried"

And tried, and succeeded is something that Corbell and the scores of former depot employees did skillfully with dedication over the years.

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