Story: The NADC Johnsville, PA.

Rick Sheckells

By Rick Sheckells
Written on 2 December 2007
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The Naval Air Development Center was the site of the worlds largest human centrifuge. Scientific experiments conducted there pioneered future air and space travel.

NADC Centrifuge

NADC Centrifuge

The U.S. Navy human centrifuge at the Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory of the Naval Air Development Center, Johnsville, PA.

One of the usual questions that you ask a friend when they come to visit is, “What do you want to do?” Of course this is always an open question and can generate a whole array of responses. Well, that’s exactly what I asked my best friend John when he came back East from Las Vegas to visit this past week.

John is a retired military man who still loves everything there is that’s military in nature. He spent time in the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Coast Guard. I met him in 1984 and he retired in 1986. Over the years we have remained best of friends.

When John came to visit, one of the things he wanted to do was visit what remains of an old U.S. Naval Air Station located in Warminster, PA. He was stationed there in the 1960’s and wondered if anything was left of the base. At one time, the area was called Johnsville, PA and was home to the Johnsville Naval Air Station. This facility originally was the site of the Brewster Aircraft Factory. Brewster designed and manufactured a number of military aircraft during World War II. These included such aircraft as the F2A-3 Buffalo, and the SB2A Buccaneer. Brewster fell on hard times and was eventually taken over by the U.S. Government. The government closed Brewster and the site became a naval base in 1944.

At the end of WW2, the base became the headquarters of the Naval Air Warfare Center. In 1952, the Navy had built the world’s largest human centrifuge at this site. Eventually the Navy changed the name of the base to the U.S. Navy Air Development Center, or NADC.

During its operation at the NADC, the centrifuge was in a round building known as the Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory. John told me that this building was highly secure and admittance was given only to those who worked there and those Navy personnel who volunteered to take rides in the centrifuge. The scientists who worked in this facility did experiments and tests which helped to pioneer high speed air and space travel as we know it today. At the time, the centrifuge was the most powerful in existence. It was 17 meters in radius, had a rate change of 10 g/s and could reach 40 g/s.

Most of us don’t know, and I sure didn’t, that this facility was used to train the heroes who were the pioneers of space travel. These brave pioneers of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects included such famous men as Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, James Lovell Jr., and Michael Collins. They all trained in the centrifuge at the NADC. The centrifuge and the work conducted there served a dual purpose. First to study the medical effects of high acceleration, and second to select individuals best able to cope with such acceleration. The scientists needed to know how many G forces the first astronauts and jet pilots could take before they passed out. All of this was new to science and these critical tests helped shape the future of air and space travel.

When we visited what was left of the NADC, we found that the centrifuge is still in place. The building is now owned by a private company who is renovating it into an office building. They are actually looking for a buyer for the centrifuge and other equipment which was left behind. The construction manager gave us a tour of the facility and allowed us to take some photos inside the centrifuge. We also got to see the control room which at one time was classified as Top Secret, along with other rooms which held various equipment used during the experiments conducted there. One piece of equipment that really drew my interest was an aircraft pilot’s seat that had what I will call a crash test dummy in it. You could tell it was original from the days when the NADC and its operations were in full swing.

Along with the centrifuge, the original factory buildings of Brewster Aircraft Factory are now office buildings or house other companies. There were three runways which are all gone now. The barracks which John and thousands of other veterans lived in are also gone. During the re-development stage, an attempt was made to save the aircraft hangers. That attempt eventually failed and they too were torn down.

There is little left of the original NADC. I was glad that my friend John took me there and told me a little about the history that was made there. I considered it a privilege to be able to see first hand such an important part of our countries history. If you are interested in such military history, I suggest you pay a visit to Warminster, PA before the rest of the NADC disappears.

Other photos in this article...

NADC Centrifuge Control Room Centrifuge Pod Centrifuge Control Room Crash Test Dummy Tower at the NADC

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