Indian Head, known primarily for the Navy base where new ordnance for ships is developed, may soon also become a Charles County tourist hot spot, now that the federal government has signed off on an unusual public-private venture.

The Navy last week approved a plan allowing a private business to operate a dinner-excursion train on an unused 15-mile stretch of Navy-owned railroad that runs from the Indian Head Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center to White Plains on U.S. Route 301 south of Waldorf.

At first glance, that might not seem like a tourist draw. But the railroad route would run along beautiful wetlands surrounding Mattawoman Creek.

The route will offer "a scenic glimpse at some of the most pristine and protected areas of Charles County, where one can observe some of nature's finest foliage and habitat," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), a prime booster of the project.

The Navy has selected Northern Central Railways, a company that runs an excursion train line based in New Freedom, Pa., to operate the Indian Head line, which is expected to carry its first passengers this fall.

"We evaluated the area and decided it was the perfect place," said Donna Kress, the Northern Central official heading the Indian Head project. "It's a half-hour from D.C., with good accessibility. And the line is very picturesque--it runs through some beautiful wetlands."

The company will call the Indian Head line the "Route of the Blue Heron," a reference to the tall birds seen in the wetlands. "We've never been down there without seeing at least a dozen different forms of wildlife in the lush habitat," Kress said.

The company expects to draw riders from the Washington tourist market, as well as from area residents. "Dinner train riders tend to be people celebrating occasions," Kress said.

Northern Central Railways will use refurbished commuter trains for the excursion runs and stainless steel rail cars from the 1940s and 1950s for the dinner train.

Under its agreement with the Navy, the company will have to upgrade the rail line, which has been largely out of service for the last decade. These improvements would allow the Indian Head base to again use the railroad for transporting coal and heavy equipment needed at the facility.

The railroad was built during World War I and until the early 1970s was the primary means for bringing tons of coal, supplies and other materials to Indian Head.

The project has been in the works for several years. The property first had to be offered to other federal agencies and even had to be screened through the Department of Housing and Urban Development to determine whether it would be suitable for housing the homeless. A request for proposals (RFP) was drafted.

"An outlease of this nature has never been done in the Navy, and there was no standard 'boilerplate' RFP to serve as a guide," said Lisa Petro, realty specialist for Engineering Field Activity Chesapeake, Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Washington.

"Leasing a Navy-owned railroad track is not something the U.S. Navy does every day," said Hoyer, who helped guide the deal through the federal bureaucracy.

Navy's Prowler Crew Returns

Members of a U.S. Navy Reserve EA-6B Prowler squadron based at Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George's County returned to work recently after a breather following an eventful deployment flying combat missions over Yugoslavia.

The squadron, VAQ-209, was sent on short notice in April to Aviano Air Base in Italy in support of the NATO's Kosovo operations. The squadron deployed with two aircraft as well as 16 aircrew and 80 enlisted maintenance personnel from Maryland, Northern Virginia and Washington.

As members of a reserve squadron, many in the unit have full-time civilian jobs, but most were able to get clearance from their employers to join the mission. "In our case, just about everybody stepped up and said, 'We can go,' " said Cmdr. F. Clay Fearnow, commanding officer of the squadron.

From almost the moment they arrived in Aviano, the aircrews were sent up on missions. The Prowlers carry electronic warfare weapons needed to suppress enemy radar. The planes accompanied NATO bombers on every mission.

Over Yugoslavia, the VAQ-209 Prowlers often were greeted with barrages of surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft artillery fire, Fearnow said.

"There were very few missions that we weren't fired upon, and that didn't seem to get a lot of attention," he said. "We're fortunate we didn't lose any Prowlers."

Squadron members fired 50 HARM missiles--a high-speed, anti-radiation air-to-surface weapon--at enemy air defense systems.

The maintenance crews who kept the Prowlers in flying form stayed in a tent city on the overflowing air base. "I was always amazed at how positive our people stayed," Fearnow said. "We get blood out of turnips from them."

After their return to Andrews on June 26 and 27, Fearnow gave squadron members a week off.

Two other Prowler crew members from this area, Lt. Robert Fenrick, of Capitol Heights, and Lt. Derek Leney, of Laurel, also flew missions over Yugoslavia for another Prowler squadron based at Whidbey Island, Washington.

Family members were on hand to greet them when they stopped over at Andrews for a night on their way back to the West Coast.

"We were blessed that he was able to get home," said Robert Fenrick's father, Joseph, a retired Pentagon employee living in Capitol Heights. "He was relieved, but you could tell he was tired. 'It was interesting'--that was all he would say."

Patuxent Pioneer Remembered

Patuxent River Naval Air Station has lost another of the original pioneers.

Charles P. "Pete" Conrad Jr. arrived at Pax River in 1955 to attend the U.S. Naval Test Pilots School, the legendary training ground for many astronauts. Conrad, who became the third man to walk on the moon, died last week at 69 in a California motorcycle accident.

Another famed Pax graduate, Alan B. Shepard, the first American to go into space, died last year.

Military Matters appears every other week. Steve Vogel can be reached at vogels@washpost.com via e-mail.

CAPTION: Navy Lt. j.g. Jason Langham gets a hug from his mother, Ann Gurian, after he and his Prowler squadron return from Kosovo.

CAPTION: Langham's mother points to a squadron of Navy jets, with her son on board, as they arrive at Andrews Air Force Base.