Volunteers restoring aircraft at Floyd Bennett Field shut out due to suspected retaliation

HARP Volunteers
The volunteers, posed with District 38 candidate Erik Frankel (center right) in front of the hangar they are unsure they will ever return to.
Photo by Jessica Parks

A fleet of volunteer seniors helping to restore antique warplanes at Floyd Bennett Field haven’t been able to return to their posts since the onset of the pandemic — and now they’re fearing that the lack of communication may be retaliation since they reported ongoing racial discrimination at their hangar. 

“What the Parks service has done is a disgrace. Not too long ago some of the volunteers had to get in touch with the Department of Interior in regards to abuse and racist harassment at the hanger which caused problems for the [National Parks Service] at Floyd Bennett Field,” Mario Aponte, a 70-year-old volunteer at the hangar, told Brooklyn Paper. “It is possible the powers that be are being spiteful.”

Before the pandemic, Hangar B at Gateway National Recreation Area’s Floyd Bennett Field was the workshop for the volunteers, who worked to preserve and rehabilitate retired military aircraft as part of the National Parks Service’s Historic Aircraft Restoration Project

The crew restored attack jets, seaplanes from the Korean War, anti-submarine aircraft, and a number of other vintage planes to their near-original state through meticulous research and volunteering skills cultivated from their various backgrounds that include military, tradesmen and law enforcement.

They also worked to memorialize the Hangar B’s place in the history of aviation — creating an exact replica of the “Winnie Mae,” the Lockheed Vega jet flown by famed aviator Wiley Post when making the world’s first solo trip circumnavigating the globe in 1933, for which the pilot disembarked from Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field. 

“There is an enormous bit of aviation history from Brooklyn,” Dante Dimille, one of the replica’s builders, said. “Wiley Post took off from Floyd Bennett Field, and he was the first person to fly solo around the world. He did it an airplane called the Winnie Mae.” 

“The airplane belonged here — there are about three of them in the world. The decision was made to build a static display,” said Dimille. “There is a beautiful model in [the hangar] that I wouldn’t take $100,000 for, it took six years and it took seven people. It’s beautiful.” 

The hangar’s restored planes and replicas were also open to the public prior to the pandemic, for which volunteers would trade in their mechanic roles to that of a tour guide, teaching visitors of all ages the rich history of the hangar and of the planes that were stationed there. 

In addition to the tours, the seniors offered hands-on experience to children with disabilities, youth doing community service and students from grade school to college in the regular maintenance of the historic aircraft — sometimes witnessing the spark of passion in the eyes of a future pilot, which they said made all of their work worthwhile. 

“The beauty in this is the work on the airplanes but there is a certain joy in seeing a 5, 6, 7-year-old kid raise their hand… and say to yourself, maybe there is a potential aeronautical engineer there, or maybe there is somebody that is going to be in space travel,” Dimille said. “That is what it is all about.” 

While they loved the work they did, Aponte said the volunteers were subject to mistreatment by a volunteer who was tasked with supervising their hangar — particularly Black and Hispanic volunteers who were addressed with racial slurs regularly. 

“He was intimidating people, he was harassing people, he was discriminatory against people, especially Blacks and Hispanics,” said Aponte. “He would call them all kinds of lousy, lousy names.” 

After asking the National Parks Service employee who put the allegedly racist volunteer in charge to address his behavior to no avail, Aponte alerted the US Department of Interior in late 2017 of the purported racial discrimination — launching a yearlong investigation into the wrongful behavior and much more, he told Brooklyn Paper. 

“That’s when I initially got in touch with the Department of Interior, to ask them to ask NPS and Floyd Bennett Field to have him stopped,” Aponte said. 

When the investigation concluded, the harassment did not stop and Aponte tried a different avenue to look for a solution, he penned a letter to Floyd Bennett Field’s head of volunteers and signed his name — a mistake he argues started the acts of retaliation. 

“I said to myself, I am not going to talk to the Department of Interior, I am now going to talk to the person in charge of the volunteers,” said Aponte. “So I wrote a letter, and I signed my own name.” 

Soon after, the volunteers were told the budget to restore the missiles they were working on was eliminated, followed by a hoist they regularly used for projects being removed, then being denied a plaque for the work they had done and getting locked out of a storage space holding tools they used, Aponte told Brooklyn Paper. 

Now, he argues the federal agency might be using the pandemic to shut them out of the hangar for good, as they haven’t heard any word from the National Parks Service in 18 months, except through a more-favored volunteer that they should retrieve their belongings from the hangar at a specified date and time. 

Hangar B has been closed to volunteers since before the pandemic.Photo by Jessica Parks

They at the very least want to be told their time at Hangar B has been terminated. 

“I think from my point of view at the very minimum, a piece of paper that says ‘we are closing the hangar because we don’t have any funds, thank you very much for your service,’ as opposed to a complete blackout,” Dimille told Brooklyn Paper. 

Being shut out for 18 months and counting, they worry the aircraft they poured decades of their lives into will deteriorate with the lack of skilled maintenance they have faced throughout the pandemic and into the indefinite future. 

A press representative for the National Parks Service did not respond to accusations of retaliation when reached for comment but stated that no volunteers working on indoor projects were authorized to return to their positions, not only the aircraft restoration volunteers. She added that volunteers at Hangar B will be notified to return sometime within 2022

“We value our volunteers and what they do and look forward to reopening the [Historic Aircraft Restoration Project] program over the coming year. However, at the moment we are still operating in a reduced posture due to the pandemic,” Daphne Yun wrote in an email to Brooklyn Paper.”Our buildings remain closed to visitors and volunteers. We do not yet have a firm timeline for resuming indoor programs and volunteer activities, but as we approach that point the HARP program will be a priority.”

It is unclear what benchmarks the National Parks Service is using to authorize new activity, and when asked, Yun referred Brooklyn Paper to the agency’s website on COVID protocols, which states all visitor centers, historic houses and ranger stations across the Gateway National Recreation Area system are closed until further notice.

Yun said the National Park Service plans to reach out to the volunteers.

“We will reach out to the HARP volunteers and address their concerns,” she wrote. “We also ask for patience as the National Park Service continues to follow federal guidelines to ensure safety precautions for employees, volunteers, and visitors.”

A City Council candidate for Sunset Park’s District 38 who happened to be at the hangar the afternoon Brooklyn Paper visited admonished its shutdown for removing a bridge between the seniors and the youth who come to visit.

“One of the biggest tragedies is these older people love connecting with the youth,” said Erik Frankel. “If you look at them you can tell they are not on Snapchat or Twitter or Instagram, so it gives them a chance to really connect with the youth.”