BRUNSWICK, Maine — John Vandal has always taken pride in his work.
During his 20 years in the U.S. Navy, the retired Petty Officer First Class helped keep the fleet’s birds in the air.
“I’d fix an airplane that was down, one they said couldn’t fly,” Vandal said. “Then, I’d watch it take off and I’d have the satisfaction of knowing I did that — I made it fly. There’s nothing wrong with hard work.”
Now, years after his retirement, the 56-year-old is still working with pride.
On Thursday, Vandal stood atop a ladder patching a hole in the fuselage of an old, twin-engine P2-Neptune airplane which has sat beside the access road to the former Brunswick Naval Air Station since 1970. Out of time and out of place, the corroding Cold War-era relic has stayed put for more than 50 years while the world changed around it.
The Navy base is gone. In its place, a thriving business and residential park is springing up around the plane. Now, the old bird is in the way. As a housing development encroaches on its long-occupied home, workmen have already run into it with heavy equipment.
Vandal knows the former submarine hunter will never fly again but he needs to keep the neglected plane in one piece long enough for a fledgling air station museum to raise the estimated $350,000 it will take to repaint, restore and move the plane to safety.
“Oh, I can do it. They told me I’d never be able to get these bomb bay doors off so I could patch the holes in them,” Vandal said, pointing to the plane’s aft belly. “And I said, ‘Hold my beer.'”
Vandal’s drink-holding efforts are worth it. The plane is an important piece of state, town and national history. It’s a priceless artifact, linking the past to the future.
“We have a lot of kids out there who don’t know the base even existed,” said Scott Miller of the Brunswick Naval Aviation Museum, which is just down the street from the P2-Neptune. “We need to save this plane so they will know, even after we are long gone.”
Miller is hoping to raise funds to get the plane a fresh paint job and then move it to a bright greenspace next to the museum. The enormous plane will need to be partially disassembled for the move.
The redevelopment authority in charge of transforming the empty base into a thriving economic hub has been so successful at its job that few signs of the Navy servicemen and women who lived and worked at Brunswick Naval Air Station remain. The P2-Neptune is an exception.
The massive plane is impossible to miss. That’s part of what makes it so important.
Built sometime in the 1950s, the 91-foot plane’s wings span a full 100 feet. Though in desperate need of a paint job, Navy Patrol Squadron VP-21’s logo can still be seen on its nose. The jaunty picture shows a winning, 21-point blackjack hand with a jack and the ace of spades.
The Navy base opened during World War II, in 1943. It was officially decommissioned in 2011. During that time, it was home to low-and-slow flying squadrons, including VP-21, which patrolled the North Atlantic, looking for Russian submarines.
The P2-Neptune had a large, underbelly radar system and could deploy floating sonar buoys. In addition to those sub-detecting strategies, it also featured a plexiglass nose cone where enlisted men would sit for hours, scanning the ocean for periscopes with binoculars as the plane flew just a few hundred feet above the waves.
The plane Vandal is working on was parked at the base shortly after the P2-Neptunes were replaced by the P3-Orions in 1968 — the same year VP-21 was disbanded.
Besides letting the next generation know the base existed, the P2-Neptune is also important to veterans who once served there. Vandal said that they’re always stopping by when they see him out there working on it. They often thank him for doing it.
“It’s touching, it really is,” said Vandal. “I love it when vets thank me for my service — because I can say the same thing right back to them.”
An old friend of Miller’s, Vandal lives in Massachusetts but comes up on weekends to work on the plane. Back home, he’s also a volunteer driver, shuttling other veterans to various appointments.
As Vandal worked on Thursday, a black SUV slowed, then came to a stop next to the P2-Neptune.
A stranger named Peter Carro got out and walked over to the former Navy airplane. Carro then ran his hand over the radar bulb on the old bird’s belly.
“I worked on that,” he said. “I worked on all of them that came through here, back in the 60s.”
Across the street a man in a truck stopped and yelled out his window.
“Hey, you can’t park there,” the man said, before adding a string of expletives, waving his arms in frustration.
Vandal shook his head in disbelief.
But Carro barely glanced up. He was lost in secret memories.
“You know where the bathrooms are on these things?” the 70-something Navy veteran said. “There ain’t none.”
Carro then let out a belly laugh which lasted half a minute.
Vandal joined him, then got back to work.