The Airplane Room: Deep Under Cumberland Mountain

The following entry was written by a guest author who wishes to be known only as The Mysterious Man from Rose Hill. We’ve decided to name this huge underground cave “The Airplane Room” in memory of his father.

This is a story that was told to me by my father when I was 8 to 10 years old in the late 50’s. It was an exciting story for a young boy and I still have vivid memories of him telling it.

Please understand that everything I’m relating is hearsay as I have no way to verify or corroborate the account. My father was a very truthful person. In fact he would often admonish me as a child to never exaggerate or embellish a story. “If you stretch the facts, then no one will believe you when you do tell the truth,” he said.

Following is a recounting of the story as told by my father, as  I remember it:

The setting is in Cumberland Gap, Tennessee where my father lived with his family. The time is the early 40’s. It was the war years, and my Dad was in his early teens.

One night, Dad and two of his friends decided to go exploring in Gap Cave, known at that time as Cudjo’s Cave. Arriving late at night, after everyone had gone home, they entered the cave and began their exploration to see how far they could travel inside the cave. After making their way through rough terrain, narrow passages, small openings, mud and water for nearly half the night, they were surprised to enter a huge room much larger than anything they could have imagined.

“We were so excited to have made this amazing discovery,” Dad said, “And to think we were the first people to see it.”

I said, “Dad, how did you know that you were the first people to discover it? How did you know no one else had been there?”

He said, “Well, when we first went in that big room, there was water dripping everywhere. The water had puddled on the floor, and on top of the water, minerals had hardened like a thin sheet of ice on a pond. Where we walked, we broke through the crystal, just like breaking though thin ice, and it left our footprints visible. When we first went in, there were no other footprints, so we knew we were the first.

“Dad,” I said, excited, “just how big was this room? How many feet across?!”

“I don’t know exactly,” he said, “we didn’t have anything to measure with, but I know how big a football field is, and you could put several in it.”

“How many?” I asked.

“Well, several, ” he said.

“Dad, could you see all the way across from one side to the other? Was the ceiling high enough to see the walls all the way around?”

“Oh yeah, he said, “it had a high ceiling.”

“How high would you estimate?”

He said, “Well, it was high enough that you could fly an airplane around in it!”

“Dad,” I asked, “could you fly a passenger plane in it?”

“I don’t know about that,” he said, “but there’s plenty of room to fly a small two-seater plane around inside!”

“Could a small plane take off in that room?” I asked.

“No,” he explained, “the floor is not smooth enough. There are big boulders strewn across the floor. We thought that, in time, there must have been an earthquake and part of the ceiling must have fallen.”

“Do you think that room might ever be open to the public?”

“I doubt it,” he said. “It’s too far back in the mountain and too hard to access. Some of the openings are very small.”

“How long were you there exploring?”

“Not too long,” he replied. “It was a long trek to get there, and we had to be out before morning.”

“Dad,” I asked, “did you carve your names and a date, so people would know you were there?”

“No, he said, “we didn’t do that.”

“Dad, if I ever had a chance to explore that cave, is there any way I could know you were there?”

“Well…” he thought, “we did leave one thing behind. We noticed how heavily everything was mineralized, and we wondered how long it would take for the mineralization to occur. We left a coke bottle under a dripping stalactite thinking that we might come back some day.”

“Dad, how did you get inside the cave?”

“Well,” he said, “there are several ways to get in, but that’s a story for another time, and I have a hard day tomorrow. It’s bedtime and we’d better turn in.”

Parsons Brinckerhoff: a worldwide leader in deep underground military base design…and the contractor behind Cumberland Gap Tunnel.


In the 2010 Parsons Brinckerhoff publication “Tunneling to the Future” the company states (page 15):

During the Cold War, PB pioneered methods for the creation of large underground spaces for military fortresses. The firm’s work in this area began in the late 1940s with the design of a hardened underground defense facility at Fort Ritchie, in the Catoctin Mountains near Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, and culminated in the early 1960s with NORAD (North American Air Defense Command Center), an underground cavern deep within Cheyenne Mountain outside Colorado Springs, Colorado, comprising six huge chambers and several tunnels designed to sustain nuclear attack. Recently, mined caverns have been designed by PB for construction of transit stations or underground storage.

The history of Parsons Brinckerhoff shows they can and will operate in utmost secrecy and will even employ deception to hide the installations they are constructing. In their publication “Parsons Brinckerhoff Through the Years: 1885 to 2012” the company writes about their leading role in the construction of Raven Rock Mountain Complex, a military nuclear bunker near Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania, known as the “underground Pentagon”:

We started design in 1948, under which time the project was under very tight security clearance…we did not even tell our families what we were doing. Once construction started and tunnel muck had to be deposited outside, it was obvious that something very important was under way [sic]. And the fiction that it was a mining operation could not be very long maintained.

That was 1948. It’s logical to assume this billion dollar company’s adeptness at concealing their activities grew with time (and technological advances).

But Parsons Brinckerhoff is not only a deep underground military base contractor- they also design subway tunnels, bridges and other public transportation systems like high speed rail projects.

the lead engineer at NORAD, Thomas R. Kuesel, was also the lead engineer at Cumberland Gap Tunnel

Kuesel’s most important job at NORAD was to design a way to reinforce rock to withstand nuclear attack. It is quite noteworthy that the same engineer responsible for the integrity of one of the United States’ most strategic underground command centers was later sent to work on a simple twin tunnel bore through a mountain for a highway that runs through small towns and villages. A highway that sees significantly less traffic than I-75, which is 45 miles away. Why was it so important that Kuesel be in charge of the Cumberland Gap Tunnel project?

S.A. Healy Inc: The subcontractor at Raven Rock Mountain Complex was also the subcontractor at Cumberland Gap Tunnel

A 1951 newspaper article from Gettysburg TImes indicates S.A. Healy is continuing work on the underground installation known as the “Little Pentagon” despite recently announced cutbacks in defense appropriations.  See “Work Goes On at Little Pentagon ,  Gettysburg Times. November 8, 1951

We already know of Parsons Brinckerhoff’s role in the development of Raven Rock, and the Gettysburg newspaper article proves PB has worked with S.A. Healy before on underground military installations.

Parsons Brinckerhoff’s, S. A. Healy’s, and Kuesel’s involvement in the tunnel construction is not a smoking gun that the tunnel is an underground military installation. Kuesel was involved with hundreds of other projects that had nothing to do with the military or defense, and the same goes for the tunnel subcontractor S.A. Healy. However, it is with certainty and accuracy that we can say the companies chosen for the tunnel construction certainly had the credentials, expertise, technology and prior experience to carry out construction of a deep underground military base in southern Appalachia at Cumberland Gap.