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Tri-City aviators shower love on Pasco’s Old Tower

The decommissioned air traffic control tower at the Tri-Cities Airport is being converted into a museum dedicated to local aviation history. Malin Bergstrom, president of Bergstrom Aircraft Inc. at the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco, is heading the effort.
The decommissioned air traffic control tower at the Tri-Cities Airport is being converted into a museum dedicated to local aviation history. Malin Bergstrom, president of Bergstrom Aircraft Inc. at the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco, is heading the effort. Tri-City Herald

As historical sites go, the decommissioned air traffic control tower at the Tri-Cities Airport is pretty modest.

But the remnant of World War II is beloved in the local aviation community, and the long-neglected tower and building are being restored by a group of volunteers dedicated to preserving the Tri-City airport’s history.

Led by Malin Bergstrom, president of Bergstrom Aircraft, fans of the Old Tower, as it is now called, hit a milestone this month when they wrapped up demolition and began constructing a museum on the building’s first floor.

Bergstrom said she was moved to preserve the tower when the owner, the Port of Pasco, considered tearing it down in 2012 as a safety and maintenance headache.

Bergstrom Aircraft occupied the tower’s office section for decades until it constructed a new facility a few years ago. “Save the Old Tower” resonated with the airport’s fans, who rallied to the cause and formed the nonprofit Pacific Northwest Aviation Museum to pursue it.

The foundation leased the first floor of the tower building from the port last summer. It pays $300 a month and has a five-year lease with an option to extend. Bergstrom said the group will lease additional space, including the tower itself, as work progresses, usually through regular Friday work parties.

With demolition wrapped, workers are replumbing and rewiring the old building and beginning to rebuild walls. Renovations will establish a museum to house the growing collection of airport memorabilia sent to Bergstrom now that word is getting out. Bergstrom said the building renovation can be completed for less than $100,000, thanks to donations of time and expertise.

Bergstrom said that it was natural to save the old building. She grew up in the family business and took ground school in the tower. She calls it a good example of historic buildings and a worthy complement to the Manhattan Project Historical National Park, which retells the story of the Hanford nuclear reservation.

Naval Air Station Pasco was largely disconnected from the Manhattan Project activities across the Columbia River at Richland. But with the public’s interest sparked by the new national park, she expects interest in Pasco’s World War II efforts to grow.

She called the Old Tower one of few opportunities to preserve a history that is fast fading. One in 10 U.S. veterans of the war are alive. Most are in their 90s or higher.

Naval Air Station Pasco was built in 1942 to train pilots. At its peak, it was the third-busiest naval training base in the country, after Pensacola, Fla. and Corpus Christie, Texas. The base was a self-contained community of thousands and all the services and recreational outlets to serve it.

An estimated 1,800 pilots trained on Stearman (Boeing) Kaydet biplanes. Later, it converted to more modern aircraft and trained experienced pilots in advanced flying techniques.

Built for war, the naval air station didn’t much outlive World War II. The navy decommissioned it in 1947 and turned the property over to the city of Pasco. The city and later the Port of Pasco operate the property as the Tri-Cities Airport, the region’s commercial aviation destination.

The Navy still trains crews in P-3 Orion antisubmarine aircraft using the airport’s runways.

The port developed the more modern terminal in the 1960s and the Old Tower is sealed off to all but the occasional stray bird. Airport Manager Ron Foraker said the tower itself remains closed to visitors for safety reasons. The stairs are dilapidated and the building needs a lot of work.

Foraker said the port is guardedly hopeful that the Old Tower group will succeed in saving the building, but said its a challenging situation. The building is inside the airport fence, making it a controlled space. Federal Aviation Administration rules prevent unescorted guests from straying onto the tarmac.

Bergstrom plans to solve that by welcoming visitors at her business, then sending them to the museum in escorted groups.

Still, the Old Tower is unique.

“There aren’t a lot of museums within a fence,” Foraker said.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

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