Kansas Aviation Museum struggles to flyBy Beccy Tanner
The Wichita Eagle
There are three seasons inside the Kansas Aviation Museum — sweltering hot, darn cold and spring.
The 77-year-old art deco building that used to serve as the Wichita Municipal Airport does not have heating or air conditioning. The three-story building is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. There is no working elevator. And it’s hard to find, tucked away in the shadows of McConnell Air Force Base.
And yet, the museum documents and touts Wichita as the Air Capital of the World. It draws more than 20,000 visitors a year, mostly aviation buffs from around the world.
“Remember the heat we had last summer? Who wants to be inside a building when it is 110 degrees outside?” said Lon Smith, the museum’s executive director. “We don’t have a good place to display planes.”
Wichita’s claim as Air Capital of the World began when Clyde Cessna, a Kingman County farmer with no formal training in engineering or flying, flew his first plane in May 1911.
More than 40 percent of the world’s general aviation aircraft are made in Wichita. Aviation historian Richard Harris wrote in 2002 that Wichita “has probably been the starting point for more of the world’s aircraft than any other city on Earth.”
So why doesn’t Wichita have an aviation museum to match its aviation legacy?
“It’s nobody’s fault,” said Dawson Grimsley, president of Davis-Moore Auto Group and a supporter of the museum.
“But you would think with Wichita being the Air Capital of the World, we would have a world-class, number-one facility — and we don’t.”
The issues, say those connected to the museum and the city’s aviation industry, come down to location, timing and money.
The Kansas Aviation Museum sits in a heavily industrial area surrounded by McConnell Air Force Base. Visitors — and even longtime Wichitans — sometimes find it difficult to locate.
Part of what has delayed its development is the question of whether the museum is in the right location.
“I don’t feel it is as much of a tourist destination as it is a journey,” said Jack Pelton, retired CEO of Cessna Aircraft. “I have friends from out of town that I’ve encouraged to go visit. It’s hard for them to say, ‘Wow, this is a got-to-see.’ They found it wasn’t easy to get to and it wasn’t what they expected.”
During the 1970s, there was discussion of creating an aviation museum downtown, Pelton said. And, at that time, most of Wichita’s major corporations were still family owned.
“The Wallace, Beech family and others were looking at doing something, but it all fell on deaf ears,” he said. “That’s how Exploration Place came about. They decided to invest their trust or inheritance in that.”
Bob Knight, former Wichita mayor and past director of the Kansas Aviation Museum, once championed efforts to put the museum downtown. He had wanted to use the old Carnegie library on Main Street, which at the time was city-owned.
“There was very little interest shown by Wichita aviation manufacturers,” Knight said. “It was difficult to get their participation, other than that they had people who were very supportive of our history and culture. But in terms of raising money, it wasn’t there.”
If the museum were moved, Smith said, it could take away some of the historical provenance that comes with the current location.
“The lion’s share of early aviation activity was on this side of town,” Smith said. “Boeing, Stearman, Cessna were all right here, along with a host of other companies.”
The building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is one of only 12 early air terminals remaining in the nation and the only one with Indian art deco.
“The building the Kansas Aviation Museum is in is a historic monument to Wichita and to all the different people who have transited through it when it was our municipal airport,” said Ron Ryan, former owner of Ryan International Airlines and a major donor to the museum for the past 20 years.
Those people include aviation legends Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, among others.
“This is the place where Howard Hughes stopped and ate in the restaurant and didn’t pay his bill, where Fred Astaire danced on the tile floors. All that is cool stuff,” Grimsley said.
All of which accentuates the conflict between a strong aviation museum versus historical preservation, Pelton said.
“It is difficult from a tourism perspective,” he said. “Do you want a strong aviation museum or a great air terminal with historical significance?
“It is not in … (an) accessible part of town. And, with post-9/11 restrictions, it makes it impossible for a fly-in destination.
“It complicates the mission.”
Of the more than 300 aviation museums in the United States, those considered some of the biggest and the best began in the early 1960s.
The Museum of Flight in Seattle, which attracts more than 400,000 visitors annually, began in 1964 with a small group of aviation enthusiasts. It is privately owned and operates on a $13.5 million budget.
The San Diego Air and Space Museum was started in 1961 and operates on a $4.5 million budget.
The Kansas Aviation Museum didn’t get started until 1991 — four years after the Mid-America Air Museum in Liberal was founded.
Still, the museum could be a national draw because of Wichita’s aviation legacy, Smith said. Included in its collection is a Stearman Navy Trainer built in 1931 and a 1920 Laird Swallow — some of the first aircraft produced in Wichita.
“We have rare planes that don’t exist anywhere else,” Smith said. “If we could get a place to display these planes, we could demonstrate not only the history of Wichita aviation but the development of aviation technology.”
Pelton thinks Wichita can recover from its late start.
“Back in the … golden days of Wichita, if it had gotten launched then, we’d have more financial momentum,” he said. “It seems a no-brainer for an aviation museum to be in Wichita, especially with the number of people who still come to Wichita for aviation reasons.”
Ryan agreed that it is still possible for Wichita to create a world-class museum.
“Why wouldn’t this community want to expand on the stories of the entrepreneurialism, capital investments and the fascinating risks people took?” he asked. “There wouldn’t have been space exploration without the Wright brothers — and we date all the way back to that.
“We have new blood, concepts and ideas.”
Jay Price says it is all about funding.
“If an institution doesn’t begin well-funded, it will always struggle,” said Price, director of public history at Wichita State University.
“Part of it may be we have been so busy making aircraft that it may be like a busman’s holiday. We are the place that makes the aircraft but are we the place that uses it?
“By and large, museums are designed for the outside. It takes money from the outside to come in and develop it. The locals don’t do it.”
The Kansas Aviation Museum began in 1991 and operates on a $500,000 budget. Less than 10 percent of its budget – $42,000 – will come from the city this year; next year it will be about 5 percent.
“The rest of our money comes from private donors and corporations,” Smith said. “We do a couple of fundraisers a year with a golf tournament and gala.”
The city has roughly $3 million to spend on local arts and cultural groups. Of that, more than $2.6 million goes to the five major museums with ties to the city: the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, the Wichita Art Museum, the Mid-America All-Indian Center, Botanica and Old Cowtown Museum.
That leaves $421,000 to be distributed among 30 other groups, which include the Kansas Aviation Museum.
“The aviation museum came about by a group who came to the city with the desire to have an aviation museum,” said John D’Angelo, director of the city’s Arts and Culture Department. “They said, if you give us the building, we will raise all the money, do all the improvements and make it happen.
“Historically, that facility has had struggles with trying to get support from both local companies and private support.”
The City Council did not take action on a request in April from the museum for $300,000 for mechanical upgrades to the building, including heating, air conditioning and an elevator. The request came as the council approved $1.15 million for an expansion at Botanica.
Smith said it will take $10 million to renovate the current historic building, add an aircraft display building that could be attached by a covered walkway, finish the grounds and build an endowment.
“We know what it would cost,” D’Angelo said. “We are not considering it considering the strain the city budget is currently under.
“We are having to make some tough decisions as to what we can afford to invest in and what we can’t. … We have other museums that have capital needs, and we are delaying them as a result of a very tight budget.”
“I am not one heavy on using taxpayer money,” Ryan said. “But when the city and county give out funds for museums that support the community, I think we should get our fair share.”
Pelton, who sits on the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum board in Washington, D.C., said he thinks that in order to have a world-class museum, it would take a minimum of $20 million in capital, perhaps as much as $50 million.
“That’s starting from scratch and not taking the bones of something that is there today,” Pelton said.
“It gets down to having capital to build a world-class museum. You have to have significant donors. And you have to have a facility to house a collection of aviation artifacts. It doesn’t work to have airplanes sitting outside in the type of weather we have.”
It will take the major airplane manufacturers, aviation clubs, city and county governments all working in unison, Ryan said. And it will take museums such as Exploration Place and the Kansas Aviation Museum working in harmony to teach the history and promote the industry’s future.
“It’s time for someone to sit down with city and county leaders and have a heart-to-heart,” Pelton said.
Grimsley said he’s puzzled as to why the museum hasn’t grown and become better known.
“I think it is going to take a commitment from the city,” Grimsley said. “They own the building. And I personally think the aircraft industry ought to participate big time. Then, others would get on board.
“We should have the best aviation museum in the country. You can do extraordinary things if you focus.
“It takes money, people and product.”Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or email@example.com.
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