For Digital First Media
UPPER MORELAND >> For the last 14 years, everyone saw the gradual transformation of Willow Grove’s Veterans Memorial Park. Ralph Storti saw the future site of monument honoring those who have served in the military.
Fourteen years later, on July 12, 2018, his vision became a reality, and the monument finally took its place in the sky.
On top of a concrete foundation in the middle of the park now rests a green Bell Model 205 UH-ID Series Iroquois “Huey” helicopter mounted on a 15-foot curved steel support arm. Written on the tail of the chopper are the words “U.S. Armed Forces.” The aircraft sits suspended in flight with its nose pointed to the ground, as if it were just coming in for a landing or taking off.
Inside the helicopter are life-size photos of the committee members who made it their mission to see it hover above the park just like Storti dreamed. To create a 3D effect, there are photos of the pilot and co-pilot’s front and side profiles. Dressed in flak jackets and helmets, they look like a real helicopter crew. In the co-pilot seat, there’s Upper Moreland Township Commissioner Kip McFatridge. Sitting behind him is Caroline Young, of Youngscape Landscaping. To her left is Bob Mathers, of RHM Real Estate. In the pilot seat is Storti, who presided over the committee and willed his idea of the helicopter as a monument into reality.
“A helicopter is synonymous of all five branches of the service,” said Storti, a Vietnam War veteran, who served as a construction mechanic in the U.S. Navy Seabees from 1968 to 1970. “So whether you’re in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard, everybody flies helicopters. So I thought what better tribute to veterans than a helicopter?”
The park’s nine acres were first purchased by neighboring residents shortly after World War II. Their dream was to create a park to honor veterans. Lacking the resources to develop the ground, the organization in charge of the property gave control of it to Upper Moreland Township to create War Memorial Park, which later became Veterans Memorial Park.
When Storti joined the board, there was an effort underway to revitalize the park. His initial suggestion of a helicopter was much simpler in the beginning.
“My initial vision was a pole and a helicopter on the top. That was it,” he said. “You can see today it’s much nicer than that.”
Obtaining the helicopter for free was easier said than done. Veterans organizations can request them for free, but they’re put on a waiting list. Storti said he was eighth on the list in 2004, and it took eight years for his number to be called.
A helicopter flown during the Vietnam War was identified in the Niagara Falls Aerospace Museum. A team from O’Rourke and Sons structural steel business drove up to get it and bring it back down to store in their shop for two years. It was missing parts and needed a lot of work in order to be put back together. Eventually, it was moved to the Youngscape Landscaping facility, where it was painted and made ready to be installed at the site. After 14 years of waiting, the site was ready for a crew to begin the six-hour job on installing the chopper in its new home.
“There aren’t enough words to describe how excited I was,” Storti said. “We’re talking about 14 years in the making.”
Storti gave a special thanks to state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-12; state Rep. Tom Murt, R-152; McCloskey and Faber Landscape Architecture; design engineer Joe Cooke; Upper Moreland Township commissioners, code enforcement and parks and recreation departments; Youngscape Contracting; McFatridge Welding; Storti Quality; as well as developer Bruce Goodman; Scott Contractors; J.G. Petrucci Co.; and O’Rourke and Sons for their help in bringing the helicopter idea to reality.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how many people helped me make this happen,” he said. “At the end of the day, it was a team effort, and I’m very grateful that it all came together.”
The Willow Grove Veterans Memorial Park site still needs to add the flags of the military branches, along with some other finishing touches before its official opening ceremony later this fall, but visitors have already begun trickling in to look at the new monument.
In the meantime, Storti said he hopes those who now come to admire the new addition to the park will never forget the reason why it’s there in the first place — to honor the sacrifices of America’s veterans.
“Some gave a little, some gave a lot and some gave it all,” he said. “Some never came back. And I think in life you need to recognize that fact. These people gave their time and, in some cases, their life in the protection of our country.”