Step up for a lofty view of Wichita and its heritage

Climb the stairs in the old air terminal tower at the Kansas Aviation Museum and take 75 steps back in time.

From that view, you can look onto the Kansas prairie and see how Wichita was built and, more importantly, why it became the air capital of the world.

From the 360-degree view of the tower is the Alpha and Omega of Wichita's aviation history — the old Stearman plane factory building now surrounded by McConnell Air Force base and embraced by Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems.

"This was the original air watch tower," says Lon Smith, director of the Kansas Aviation Museum. "This is one of a kind that exists no place else on this planet."

On Thursday, the museum will host an open house and unveil the renovation of the tower and a new exhibit recounting its history.

The exhibit will include some of the equipment used when the tower was in operation, including an Aldis lamp — a signaling lamp — maps, blackboards and the little boat-shaped weights nicknamed "shrimp boats" that represented the planes and their positions.

In the days before computers and radar, the Wichita Municipal Airport was one of the busiest airports in the nation, Smith said.

Aviation legends Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh are known to have walked its terrazzo floors. And millionaire Howard Hughes and air pioneer Wiley Post buzzed the terminal.

For the past year, the museum staff and volunteers have been working to renovate the tower.

Although the art deco building went into service in May 1935, Smith said, the height of activity for the airport was before and during World War II. That was when two wings were added to the building for military administration and the tower was constructed at a cost of $7,000.

The renovation of the tower's interior this past year, Smith said, cost nearly $10,000. An additional $5,000 in donations is being sought to repair the tower's exterior.

A new roof was put on; the old ceiling was stripped out and replaced with insulation; walls were painted, and a new floor was laid. There was also one amenity added to the lofty old tower — air conditioning.

Because the tower is one of the highest points in Wichita, visitors can get not only bird's-eye views of Wichita's cityscape but surrounding communities.

The Kansas Aviation Museum opened April 19, 1991, to showcase Kansas aviation history. The building, best known for its art-deco architecture, is considered one of the signature buildings in Wichita. The museum, at 3350 S. George Washington Blvd., is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"At one time, there was something like 40 to 50 companies building planes, many of them have a historic record of development in Wichita," Smith said. "This was the period with the most intense learning curve of engineering in aviation."