By James Boyle
A military helicopter perched over Veteran’s Memorial Park in Willow Grove serves as a monument in honor of all U.S. veterans.
It’s easy to zoom past the Old York Road entrance to Veteran’s Memorial Park in Willow Grove, especially if it’s the first time visiting the park. The driveway sits at a busy intersection, sandwiched between a shopping strip on right and St. Jude’s Religious Store on the left. There’s a traffic light, but the only clear marker is lettering on the stone walls that can be missed until it’s too late to turn.
What can’t be missed is the giant helicopter towering over the nine-acre park once the turn into the driveway is made. The green Bell Model 205 UH-ID Series Iroquois “Huey” helicopter sits more than 20 feet high, angled toward the ground to simulate a chopper taking off for a mission.
The monument in honor of U.S. veterans is a new addition to the 70-plus-year-old park, and marks a major milestone in a project nearly 15 years in the making.
“It was a tough road to hoe,” said Ralph Storti, a Vietnam veteran who spearheaded the project for more than 14 years. “At the end of the day, this is something I believed in and wanted to make happen.”
Witnessing Storti’s passion and energy on a sunny Thursday morning, it’s clear the former Navy Seabee could have lifted the helicopter on to the concrete foundation and steel pedestal singlehandedly, if given the chance. Thankfully, Storti did not need any feats of strength, just a little patience and a lot of help. Storti estimated the donations of money, equipment and materials, plus grants and volunteer time, added up to more than $400,000.
“There are no words that could ever express my gratitude for what happened,” said Storti, president of the Willow Grove World War II Veterans Association. “Everyone is giving me credit, but other than persevering for 14 years and driving it to completion, there was a lot of people that made it happen.”
The opportunity to get the monument installed presented itself around 2003, when Upper Moreland officials started looking at revitalizing the York/Easton road commercial area near the Willow Grove Mall. Part of the plan included installing a driveway off Old York Road that would cut into the park and grant access to a parking lot for the adjacent Septa rail station.
The property was purchased by Upper Moreland residents in the mid-1940s and turned over to the township with the understanding that it be turned into a park, and any changes that would affect the park must be approved by the World War II Veterans Association. A new access road would run right into an already existing monument that had been installed in the 1950s, Storti said.
“They said they needed to remove the monument,” Storti said. “I said OK, but that we needed to replace it with something. They told me to come back with some ideas.”
Inspired by pictures he saw of a helicopter monument in Porterville, California, Storti presented a couple versions before the final design was accepted in 2004. Then, it was only a matter of getting a helicopter. The federal government gives them for free to qualified veterans groups such as the Willow Grove World War II Veterans Association, but there’s a waiting list.
Eight years after making the request, Storti got the call in 2012 that a helicopter was waiting to be picked up at the Niagara Aerospace Museum in New York. He just needed to come get it.
“I got in touch with Mike O’Rourke, who runs a steel company out near West Chester,” Storti said. “Because the helicopter sits so high, we needed what’s called a low-boy trailer to get it underneath bridges. Not everybody has a low-boy trailer, but Mike did. He said whatever I needed, he was there. He took one of his drivers, went up to Niagara on his own dime, paid for tolls, meals, fuel and hotel and kept the helicopter in storage for two years.”
It would take nearly six years to get the helicopter ready for public display. When he got the aircraft, much of it had been stripped for parts. Cash was tight for Storti’s modest veterans group, and it took plenty of research and phone calls to find replacements. He hit a gold mine when a representative from Fort Belvoir in Virginia called up and said he had most of the parts, ready to be donated to Storti’s project.
As the parts came in, Storti turned to Upper Moreland Commissioner Kip McFatridge, who found a manual online and started working with Bob Mathers to piece it back together.
“If you can imagine, it’s me, an insurance agent, and a real estate agent repairing a military helicopter,” said McFatridge, on the phone Monday afternoon. “It took about six years, doing it in our spare time as the parts came in. Another guy, Bob Young, helped with some of the mechanical pieces, like the transmission.”
Reassembled, painted and re-lettered, the helicopter sat for two years outside Young’s landscaping business, visible from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, as work started on getting the park ready for the new monument. Storti received a huge boost with donations from developers Bruce Goodman, who built the new Wawa on Old York Road, and J.G. Petrucci, which is in the midst of replacing the demolished Mandarin Garden on Davisville Road with a $75 million luxury apartment complex.
Goodman also put Storti in touch with Scott Contracting from Norristown, which donated time and resources to prepare the site and pour the foundation. O’Rourke fabricated and installed the steel pole and pedestal, and supplied the crane that hoisted the helicopter into place on July 12. Next to the monument fly five flags, representing the U.S. Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard.
“I wanted a helicopter because it is synonymous with all branches of military service,” said Storti. “Everybody had a helicopter. I was in the Navy, but if I put in an anchor, then the army guys would be mad. If it was something else, the marines would be mad. The reason I wanted the monument is because I believe in veteran causes. I wanted a tribute to them that wasn’t tied to a particular branch or particular war.”
The finishing touches to the monument will be finished by the weekend, according to McFatridge, including some landscaping and plaques. A formal dedication ceremony is planned for late September or early October, with invitations sent out to military representatives. More details will be made public once plans are finalized, he said.