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'Portsmouth Aeroshipbuilding' alternate universe is a big hit with Facebook users

A screen capture from the "Portsmouth Aeroshipbuilding" Facebook page.

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By DENISE WATSON | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: December 14, 2018

NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Tony Snipes posted the staff alert on Facebook on a recent Monday:

Anyone taking their final flight test for the Single Operator Utility Vehicles must meet Wednesday, Dec. 5, in Hangar Echo at 0500 hours.

As if crew members needed more bait, Snipes included a snazzy color image of the flyer — an open-top, tugboat-shaped vessel zooming high above the Portsmouth Aeroshipbuilding waterfront with other SOUVs streaking underneath it.

“Roger that 0500 ECHO,” one crew member replied to the post.

Another: “I’ll have 'em all gassed up and ready to roll by 0430…Gotta have time for coffee.”

Snipes is the “public information officer” at The Portsmouth Aeroshipbuilding Co., an alternate universe that resembles the Norfolk Naval Shipyard that Snipes grew up near in Portsmouth. It can only feel like home, though. At this Portsmouth yard, ships are built to fly.

A year ago, Snipes created this world in his head and digitally painted it in to play with on Facebook.

Then other people wanted to play along.

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Portsmouth Aeroshipbuilding is what happens when self-proclaimed geeks grow up and their imagination, tools and skills finally fuse and reveal what makes them tick.

Snipes works as a digital marketing manager at his bills-paying job.

At night, often pre-dawn, he's dreaming up illustrations, stretching the art skills he learned at I.C. Norcom High and Norfolk State University in the 1980s.

With this, he began by sketching floating tankers, tugboats and Navy carriers emerging from clouds, complete with swarms of pesky seagulls. He shrouded them in a historical look with a futuristic feel.

He knew from his job that digital campaigns worked magic for his clients. He wondered if he could use a similar social media approach to create a story.

Snipes needed a backstory and realized that the vessels could only be made at a sprawling network of buildings and cranes like the one embedded in his hometown memories.

His aeroshipbuilding enterprise suddenly had a home and a name.

Each week, he’d develop a craft and slowly reveal its evolution along with the workers who built it. The shipyard is set in the 1940s when the world is at war and America is in dire need of brilliance.

It’s found at Portsmouth where engineers have learned to harness gravity and manipulate moving tons of metal with “gravitational displacement technology,” or GDT.

Snipes had to create the theory because of the more than 5,000 viewers who visit his site weekly, several were engineers who had to know, “How can ships fly?”

Snipes said: “I had to have an out.”

He also set the scene in the past because he loved the blooming personality of the 1940s — its jazz-flavored air, the zoot suits and women with back-seamed stockings. It was also a time when America was struggling with a new identity and found it in the rally for the war effort.

“You picture everyday folks that built those big old ships that helped win the war for us; that’s amazing,” Snipes said. “As I looked at old photos to get a feel for the story, a lot of those photos were of women who stepped up. This was somebody’s mother and grandmother back in the day who worked to make sure we’re not all speaking German now.”

In his world, most of the top-notch pilots are African American women. Occasionally, the famed Tuskegee Airmen, real African American pilots in WWII, visit P-Town to advise on aircraft design.

Bessie Stringfield, one of the few, if not only, African American motorcycle dispatch riders during World War II, came by to help develop a flying motorcycle called the “Piranha.” Its missiles, like those in WWII, include painted warnings to the German leader, Adolf Hitler.

Snipes rakes the internet for historical footage and audio to post, such as "man-on-the-street" interviews that reporters had with people in the days following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. He looks for photos and merges them almost seamlessly with his illustrations.

His Facebook page contains actual photos of wartime ship production, but then there are glimpses of Snipes in the yard, surveying the sky for stories, or sitting at a table with singer Ella Fitzgerald who stopped by to entertain the crowd on a Friday.

The Facebook page reads like an employee newsletter — no strict plotline, no major characters, just snippets of life behind the gates. Occasionally, he mixes in the present day, such as a tribute to former President George H.W. Bush who died on Nov. 30 or photos of the actual shipyard taken during his Thanksgiving visit home.

When he launched the site, however, he had no idea people from around the world would be so eager to join him.

People who've never heard of the real Portsmouth are learning about it. Fans have asked to purchase the images, so he had to create a company store where he sells mugs. He also sells a calendar on the site.

In March, he printed out the most popular fan images and set up a booth at a comic convention.

He learned about “diseselpunk” art, which shares a similar premise to Snipes’ work, when those artists shared Snipes’ page.

Each Facebook post makes Snipes believe he wasn’t the only one, as he describes it, “helping to escape the mundane one image at a time.”

“What are your shipping rates to Europe?” one Facebook follower posted.

“Are you working on a graphic novel?”

“Freaking awesome. Everyone needs to know about this.”

Recently, Snipes received a post that made his life:

“How do I apply at the shipyard?”

———

Snipes’ work bends toward the future, but is deeply rooted in his past.

His grandfather worked at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard and he has a nephew who works there now.

The gargantuan Navy ships always captivated him and still do. When he was 10 and 11, he’d spend Saturdays at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum and hoped his friends wouldn’t ask on Monday how he spent his weekend.

He didn’t want his friends to know he was such a geek, he said.

His Aunt B, Beatrice Elliott, also talked about the war and how she dated a guy who was called to the base after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

She was also the keeper of thick family albums that he loved going through when they went to her home for Sunday dinners.

“I was captivated by those photographs,” he said. “Everybody back in those days were dressed to the nines. All the gents looked distinguished and the women were beautiful. And, at the same time, I knew the people in those photos.”

Years later, it became natural that the past would intertwine with his present. The heroines he draws, the fierce-looking pilots, are modeled after his three daughters.

As the Portsmouth Aeroshipbuilding Co. grows, he wants to build on its past. How could a racially inclusive, gravity-defying entity kind of exist?

Look for storylines with an Abraham Lincoln who was not killed in 1865. The president survived and helped rebuild a country that would be less racially divided than it was after the Civil War.

The 1880s “War of Currents” between innovators Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla will be recast. And there's a possibility that Thomas Andrews, the chief designer of the Titanic, didn't go down with the ship and lived to create something more spectacular.

“This was supposed to be a little project,” Snipes said of those early days of the yard and how it has changed.

“But that is the fun of it.”

©2018 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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