LEXINGTON PARK -- The Patuxent River Naval Air Station rose 50 years ago from clouds of dust and streams of mud on a fertile point of land in Southern Maryland. Thirteen months passed between the first turning of earth in the old plantations and the first turning of propellers on the runways. A village vanished, people lost homes, but there was a war on.
Construction workers came by the hundreds to St. Mary's County. Hotels were filled and the workers kept coming. They slept in parks, scrounged lodging with local families and built their own tar-paper barracks. In months, they made an army 6,000 strong.
"There were men who came here like a gold rush," said Larry Millison, a real estate developer and former county commissioner whose family was ousted when the Navy moved in. "It was just like a boom town in a Wild West movie."
Men who had earned 50 cents or a dollar a day as Depression farm laborers could make $200 a week or more with overtime pay building the base. They worked day and night. They drove giant earthmovers down narrow country roads onto Cedar Point, waterfront home of some of the best farmland in Southern Maryland. They laid runways over rich topsoil and built hangars taller than a silo, big enough to swallow a dozen tobacco barns.
The hamlet of Pearson -- homes, a gas station, general store, bar, car dealer and Methodist church -- disappeared almost overnight. So did much of the provincial life of St. Mary's County.
Fifty years ago, the gates were swung open. In marched crackerjack pilots and technicians, men with degrees in engineering and aeronautics from schools far away. With the world at war, they came to test airplanes and send them into battle. St. Mary's County, once home chiefly to farmers and watermen, became proving ground for the best aviation technology the country knew.
"A great responsibility is put into your hands," Rear Adm. John S. McCain, chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, said at the commissioning ceremony on April 1, 1943. "For growth and change is still the very life of any air service which hopes to survive."
Growth and change have been the story of the station, located at the confluence of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay, about 90 miles south of Baltimore.
Today, as military bases close or diminish around it, Patuxent River is poised to gain jobs and shoulder new missions. This county of 80,000 people, where the population has grown more than fivefold since the base opened, may be in for another surge.
Split about evenly among military and civilian employees and contractors, the base employs 10,000 people, nearly a third of the jobs in the county. Pax River, as it is known in local lingo, pays nearly half of all county wages, or about $403 million in 1991, said Susan Wilkinson, a county economic development specialist.
In 1996, the first of about 2,000 jobs are to be transferred from a Navy research and development center in Warminster, Pa., and a station in Trenton, N.J. Another 3,000 jobs may be sent to St. Mary's as the result of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission's recent recommendation that Pax River absorb air command positions from Crystal City, Va.
The impact on the county will be tempered by employee cuts through attrition over the last two years. Also, the base closure commission has recommended that 1,100 jobs move from the Navy base in St. Inigoes -- about six miles south of Pax River -- to Charleston, S.C.
Charting the changes
County Planning Director Jon Grimm said the influx from Warminster and Trenton will not boost the county population more than the 1988 master plan anticipated. But he said planners haven't had time to study in detail the potential impact of the Crystal City move on local schools and roads. Generally, Mr. Grimm said, schools are tight on space, and as part of a six-year expansion plan, an elementary school is opening next month in Hollywood, north of Lexington Park.
Road improvements also are expected, including widening the 4 1/2 -mile stretch of state Route 235 from state Route 4 to the main base gate in Lexington Park.
Inside the gate lies a 6,500-acre complex of runways, hangars, computerized aircraft observation posts, offices, flight simulators and apartment buildings. This year, the Navy will spend nearly $1 million a day to run the place. The government figures the base buildings and property are worth $1.3 billion.
From the street, it doesn't look like much. Sailors in white keep watch at the gate house. Next door, a few old jet fighters and helicopters are displayed in front of the Naval Air Test & Evaluation Museum. So is the cupola of the old Cedar Point Lighthouse.
Across the four-lane blacktop from the gate stands a doughnut shop, a shopping center, a motel and small office buildings, testimony all to the foresight of Larry Millison's father, Hiram. He lost land in Pearson, but bought a couple thousand acres across from where the main gate eventually went up, the area that became the commercial center of Lexington Park. The Millison
family made a fortune.
Fighter jets fly over and no one even looks up. It's just another plane. The rumble of supersonic warplanes over the Super Fresh supermarket seems no more noteworthy to passers-by than the whoosh of a passing car.
Testing at 25,000 feet
On another business day last month, a twin-engine fighter capable of flying at more than twice the speed of sound, of tracking 24 enemy targets at once and attacking six of them simultaneously, took off and soared high into a cloudless sky over Pax River.
In an F-14 Tomcat, Pilot Lt. Chris Ferguson and his radar intercept officer, Lt. Cmdr. Cal Worthingston, climbed into a 2,400-square-mile box of space over the Chesapeake Bay. The jet's every move was captured on video cameras and tracked by radar. Their mission was to test how a half-ton bomb would perform when dropped during a supersonic dive.
In a building near where the off-shore lighthouse once marked Cedar Point, technicians worked in the dark of the Chesapeake Test Range control center. In a room the size of a theater, they peered into luminous computer screens that were dwarfed by the giant display on the far wall. There, in a grainy image, was the Tomcat, miles above the bay.
At 25,000 feet, Lieutenant Ferguson rolled the plane over on its back to reach quickly the proper dive angle: 60 degrees. Picture a 61-foot-long hour hand at 7 o'clock.
Lieutenant Ferguson rolled the plane right-side up and dived at 775 mph, breaking the sound barrier and closing on earth at 1,000 feet per second. At 11,230 feet, he pushed a button to drop two bombs from the back end of the Tomcat's belly. Then he yanked the stick back, pulling out of the dive as he and the radar officer endured gravitational force five times their weight.
The dummy bombs fell into the bay, where Navy crewmen had cleared boaters away from a 3-square-mile rectangle of water. The bombs did not hit the jet or each other. The day's second run went smoothly, too, and two bombs from the front end of the jet dropped into the bay. Computers in the control center recorded the entire flight, millisecond by millisecond.
A success, for now -- for that weapon, for that dive angle, for that speed. But the tests go on, as they have gone on in this project since November 1990. The orders from the Navy are to see if the F-14 -- previously used only to strike airborne targets -- can be adapted to drop bombs on ships and ground targets.
In this job as in others, it is Pax River's duty to tell the Navy what a piece of equipment will and will not do. Sometimes the base technicians work with manufacturers as equipment is developed.
Entirely new Navy aircraft seldom come along, but any new electronic gear -- radio, radar, computer -- must be put through its paces at Pax River. With new planes and helicopters, it is the station's job to find the safe limits of speed, G-force, angle, acceleration and combinations of these. Aviators and engineers call these limits the "operating envelope."
Pushing the envelope
"You tried to stay within what you knew the airplane could do," said retired Capt. George C. Duncan, 76, of Arlington, Va., a former test pilot at Pax River. "Sometimes you had to push outside the envelope, you got into a jam. Some guys got killed that way."
The last pilot killed on a test flight out of Pax River died the morning of Aug. 15, 1990, when an A-6 bomber apparently snapped a tail rudder control rod and plunged nose-first into a field near Burgess, Va., about 30 miles south of the base. Lt. William C. Davis was able to eject at about 3,000 feet and survived. Capt. Steven A. Hazelrigg, the 42-year-old chief of the division that tests fighter and attack planes, did not eject.
An immense hangar in the southeast corner of the base is named for Captain Hazelrigg. Other graduates of Patuxent's Test Pilot School killed on the job are remembered in the names of streets at Pax River and on a plaque in the Naval Air Test & Evaluation Museum. The plaque bears names of 159 pilots who have died at Pax River and elsewhere.
No test pilot Captain Duncan knew ever dwelled on the danger.
"No flier ever thinks of that, you don't expect that to happen to you," he said. "If you do, you shouldn't be flying."
Captain Duncan shot down 13 Japanese fighter planes during World War II and was severely burned in an aircraft carrier landing in Norfolk, Va., in 1951. Six months later, he was back flying.
Life before the jets
He graduated from Patuxent's third test pilot class in 1949. In those days, they sent pilots up with a hand-held gauge to measure the pressure on the stick during maneuvers, a stopwatch to time rolls and acceleration, and a pad of paper to write it all down.
The end of the 1940s brought jets to Patuxent. New planes were coming in all the time. The hottest pilots and the hottest planes converged on Pax River. Four of the original seven astronauts -- Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, John Glenn and M. Scott Carpenter -- graduated from Test Pilot School in the 1950s.
"It was exciting -- very, very exciting," said Peggy Smith of Hollywood, wife of retired test pilot Capt. Nick Smith. "You just had this incredible feeling you were on the cutting edge," she said.
"We had to get together a lot of new theory to figure out how to test the jets," said Jack Nial, a former flight test engineer who is now director of the Naval Air Test & Evaluation Museum.
As technology fueled a new age inside the gate, the presence of the base reshaped life outside. The population of St. Mary's County soared from 14,600 in 1940 to 29,100 in 1950. "We changed from a Tidewater aristocracy," said Ed Stokel, St. Mary's unofficial historian, who lives in Leonardtown, about 12 miles west of the Navy base.
"The influence of the old families began to fade," said Mr. Stokel, 66, whose mother was a member of the Abell family, which for generations held the job of county sheriff. Mr. Stokel worked at Pax River as a civilian for nearly 43 years.
Others raised in St. Mary's reject the notion that a few families controlled the county before the Navy arrived. But they acknowledge that provincial life ended by storm when the Navy took Cedar Point through condemnation in April 1942.
"I'd have stayed down on the farm," said Ernie Bell, a lawyer in Leonardtown and state delegate. He was a year old when the Navy took the property in Pearson where his family owned farms and a car dealership. The car business was moved to its current home in Leonardtown.
A way of life ends
James Forrest has lived in St. Mary's all his 82 years but never worked on the base. He thinks Pax River probably helped to improve the lives of the county's black residents, who constitute about 10 percent of the population. Although changes were bound to come as segregation ended in the 1960s, Mr. Forrest, a retired telephone company supervisor who is black, said the base hastened the process by creating better-paying jobs.
Ted Newkirk, who worked on the base as an electronic technician for 28 years, said in his experience the Navy only reluctantly created opportunities for blacks. He was granted a promotion to a higher pay step in 1970 only after the Navy's Equal Employment Opportunity office concluded that he had been the victim of racial discrimination for years. Despite the victory, he quit the base in 1982 in the face of continued frustration with his job assignments.
He now runs Newkirk Enterprises Inc., a home construction business in Lexington Park. "I stand to do quite well" as Pax River prepares to expand once again, he said.
The expansion worries Peggy Smith. Although she and Captain Smith live in a home surrounded by acres of their own undeveloped land, she fears St. Mary's County is getting too congested.
The quiet place she remembers from the old days of Pax River is changing before her eyes.
Five miles away, just north of the station's main gate, bulldozers are cutting a ruddy swath in the earth for a new road into the base in an effort to relieve traffic jams on state Route 235.
On dry days, dust clouds the construction site, kicks up in the rush of cars passing the Naval Test Museum, and settles on the old jets whose day of glory has come and gone.