One of the few remaining structures of a once busy naval air station, the Grosse Ile Pilot House still provides the basic services that were originally intended for it when it was built over eighty years ago.
Built by Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical Corporation in 1929 as a part of a $120,000 expansion program, it was designed as a dining area and barracks for flight school students that the company was teaching at the Grosse Ile Air Field.
The barracks, along with the hangar to the east of it, were used as a flying school as well as an aircraft sales and service facility. The 1920’s was an era of expansion. Flying was becoming a fast fad and many were taking advantage of the growing industry.
At the same time that Curtiss-Wright was expanding its facility, the U.S. Navy Reserve was moving to Grosse Ile as well. After organizing a naval air reserve squadron in 1926, Lt. Charles D. Williams Jr. moved the squadron from the Army’s Selfridge Field and Detroit’s Memorial Park to Grosse Ile. The area was on the southern tip of the Island and near the airfield. Money provided by the State of Michigan allowed them to build a seaplane hangar as well as living quarters, shops and mess hall. The base was commissioned as the United States Naval Reserve Aviation Base, Grosse Ile, Michigan, on September 7th, 1929.
In August of the same year, the Aircraft Development Corporation, which owned the large area that encompassed the Grosse Ile airfield, completed their all-metal blimp, the ZMC-2, and flew it for the first time. The ZMC-2 was turned over to the Navy later that year and served until 1939.
The beginning years of the 1930’s were a busy time for the airbase as well as the civilian field. The Navy squadron doubled in size and Curtiss-Wright introduced gliders in its training program in 1931. Two Marine aviation units were also added to the base.
By 1932 the economy was slowing down, and the Curtiss-Wright Corporation was having difficulty staying in business. The Aircraft Development Corporation could not secure more contracts from the Navy for more all-metal dirigibles. Lieutenant Williams and Commander R. Thorton Broadhead, the commander of the Michigan Naval Reserve, took this opportunity to acquire the Curtiss-Wright property after it closed down operations. They were also able to lease the remaining land from the Aircraft Development Corporation, thereby controlling about 375 acres of land. Using Works Projects Administration (WPA) funds in 1935, runways, roads and taxiways were added, making the base a first-rate airfield.
In 1934, a study by the Federal Aviation Commission recommended an increase in the Naval Air Force that prompted, in 1935, Grosse Ile to be designated a primary flight-training base. This was the first step for a naval aviator to earn his wings. After completing their primary training, they went to Pensacola, Florida for advanced training.
Additional WPA projects were made in 1936, bringing Detroit water to the Island and the base, as well as improvements to the Curtiss-Wright barracks (today’s Grosse Ile Pilot House).
In January 1941, all of the reserve squadrons at the base were called to active duty. The Naval Reserve aviation cadet-training program was stepped up to fill the projected quota of 2,900 pilots in the first three months if war was to come. At the time, Grosse Ile was training 23 a month. In August 1941, one hundred cadets arrived from Great Britain and the American cadets were transferred to other commands. Grosse Ile would become one of the leading training centers for the United Nations primary students.
With the entry of the United States into the war, the base expanded to double its size. A five million dollar expansion program built a large number of wooden buildings north of Groh road, directly across from the Curtiss-Wright barracks. These buildings were used for classrooms, training simulator rooms and administration offices as well as a PX, medical dispensary and barracks. Three runways were also laid out around the original circular field. The base now consisted of 604 acres and housed over 2,000 men and women, plus the R.A.F. cadets. The old Curtiss-Wright barracks was still being used as senior officers’ quarters as well as the officers club throughout the war.
By fall of 1942, Grosse Ile was the leading primary training base in the Naval Reserve. In recognition of this, the base was officially designated U.S. Naval Air Station Grosse Ile, Michigan.
The R.A.F. cadets were transferred from Grosse Ile in April 1944, allowing the increase of American cadets at the station from bases no longer being used for primary training. Soon there were over 800 naval aviation cadets at the station.
By the end of 1944 the Navy realized that the loss of naval aviators was not as considerable as was expected and that too many men were being trained as replacements. In 1945 the flight-training program was cut back at Grosse Ile and other bases. In August when the war in the Pacific ended, there was little activity at the station. With massive reduction in forces, many bases throughout the country became ghost towns overnight.
On July 1, 1946, the new postwar Naval Air Reserve program was launched. At this time Grosse Ile was home to 10 Naval Air Reserve squadrons as well as one Marine squadron. Throughout the remainder of the life of the base various units were quartered at Grosse Ile and thousands of reservists were trained. The base continued to be a thriving and busy operation.
In 1964 the Department of Defense ordered that the base be closed. It was determined that Selfridge Field could handle the various activities from Grosse Ile as well as the Coast Guard and other reserve aviation units. With the advent of much faster and larger jet aircraft the runways at Grosse Ile would prove to be inadequate. The expected closing of the base and the move to Selfridge was not begun until October of 1969. By November the last training class was held and the base was closed.
Since 1969 the area that was once the Grosse Ile Naval Air Station has seen many drastic changes. The wooden structures that were built to accommodate the massive expansion during World War II have been razed. Grosse Ile Township has taken over the airfield, using it as a civilian airport. The few remaining buildings are being used for recreation activities and light industry.
The old Curtiss-Wright barracks (Grosse Ile Pilot House), built as a mess hall and dormitory and used as senior officers quarters and club from 1933 until the base closed in 1969, still stands. Arthur C. Cortis established the Grosse Ile Pilot House in 1981. Several rooms have been renovated for overnight and long-term guest lodging. The upper floor is still used for private dinner dances, weddings and banquets. The original dance floor and two original natural fireplaces are still in use. It is often that a guest of the Grosse Ile Pilot House will recall a story of either being stationed at Grosse Ile and in training here or as a guest at a dance held at the officers club.