The two last planes at Maine's Brunswick Naval Air Station lifted off Saturday in blustery winds, ending nearly 60 years of maritime patrol operations at New England's last active-duty military air base.
The P-3 Orions of the VP-26 squadron lumbered down an 8,000-foot runway before heading off to a six-month deployment in Central America. After that, they fly to their new home at Florida's Jacksonville Naval Air Station.
The planes took off without any speeches or fanfare about 50 minutes apart Saturday afternoon. A small group of visitors gathered at the base operations building to watch, including Albert Stehle of Bowdoinham, whose father, Leroy Stehle, commanded the VP-26 during the early 1970s.
"I just came to see the last plane take off," said Stehle, a building contractor who lives in the flight path of the base and will no longer be able to look up and see the planes bearing the squadron's trident insignia. "After being a Navy brat for all these years and having to miss your dad because he was off on deployment, you finally realize it was all for a great cause."
Brunswick, once home to 4,000 sailors and six patrol squadrons, now has a skeleton crew. Its two runways are scheduled to close in January and personnel will continue to leave the base until it closes for good in May 2011.
The decision to shutter the base was made in the final round of closings by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission in 2005. The 3,200-acre base will be turned over to a redevelopment group.
The Brunswick Naval Air Station opened during World War II to train British and Canadian pilots. After the war, the base was deactivated for a time before the U.S. Navy moved in.
The P-3 Orions, which went into operation in the 1960s, tracked Soviet submarines in the Atlantic Ocean during the Cold War. More recently, the planes have been used on drug interdiction missions and in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Helping to oversee Saturday's departures was Cmdr. Jeff Draeger, executive officer of VP-26.
Draeger, who is scheduled to depart Brunswick on Tuesday aboard a military airlift, said he and his wife, a P-3 pilot whom he met at the Naval Academy, have enjoyed their two tours with Brunswick and plan to keep their home there.
"We love it, he said. "The local community has been very supportive and the Navy has felt very welcome."
(This version CORRECTS spelling of Stehle's hometown to Bowdoinham.)