All forms of aviation continue to be a global obsession–a unique language that most people appreciate and to which they somehow relate. An airplane is also a unique classroom. Those of us who have the opportunity are obligated to use it to help interpret our past so that we may understand our future a little better. Vintage aircraft should also be considered “time capsules” that must be preserved to educate future generations in man’s greatest dreams and achievements.
Back in 1985, several vintage aircraft enthusiasts bought and restored to flying condition a U.S. Marine Corps Chance-Vought FG-1D Corsair. Building on success, they then restored a North American AT-6/SNJ Texan. Additional restoration projects followed, including a North American T-28 Trojan and a Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bomber.
The aircraft were flown to airshows throughout the country, acting as ambassadors of our nation’s aviation heritage. It soon became clear that these magnificently restored examples of our aviation past deserved a permanent home where educational programs and exhibits could be developed. The restoration of these aircraft and their subsequent display formed the foundation for what was to become the Lone Star Flight Museum.
Many factors are involved in building and developing a world-class flying aviation museum. Of paramount importance is accessibility to a suitable airfield with sufficient runway length to accommodate even the largest civilian or military aircraft that may be considered for future acquisition. It must be easily accessible to the general public and within fairly easy reach of a large metropolitan area so that it can become a major tourist attraction. It must also be readily accessible to visitors from other points of the globe and be able to attract a sizable volunteer force to bring stability and longevity to its programs.
The collection had originally been housed in a hangar at Hobby Airport in Houston, Texas. But the airport hangar was without public access, and the collection had no formal administrative structure to provide direction for the future. A board of directors was formed in early 1987 to create a nucleus for the museum’s administration. Galveston, Texas, was chosen as the museum site. This decision was made in part because of Galveston Island’s love and appreciation of history, its strategic location relative to the rest of the country, and the existing 6,000-foot runways at Galveston Municipal Airport, known as Scholes Field. The location was a more than fitting place in which a world-class aviation museum could grow and prosper.
Construction of the original 51,000-square-foot facility began in 1989, and included a hangar-exhibit area, a museum retail shop, mechanical shop, storage space and administrative offices. The Lone Star Flight Museum officially opened its doors to the public in November 1990. Shortly after the grand opening, it became apparent that the hangar space built to accommodate the collection for the next four years of growth had been seriously underestimated.
The original military and civilian aircraft on exhibit included a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress that in 1992 won Best Bomber at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Oshkosh show and Best B-17 the following year, an AT-6/ SNJ Texan and a North American B-25 Mitchell. New additions were added shortly after the public opening. One of only five remaining Lockheed P-38L Lightnings in flying condition was among the museum’s first restoration efforts.
By 1992 the collection had grown to include a Grumman F7F Tigercat, one of three still flying in the world; a classic 1936 Beech Model 17 Staggerwing, which won Best of Show at Oshkosh in 1986; and an impressive collection of display quality aircraft engines. The engines are still used to educate visitors about the intricate workings of radial and liquid-cooled aviation power plants. The engine collection includes a Rolls-Royce Merlin, a Wright R-3350 and a Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp. Visitors are encouraged to activate the moving model of a Wright R-1820, which demonstrates the interior movements of a classic radial engine. Perhaps two of the most significant pieces in the power plant collection are beautifully restored examples of the first Axis and Allied jet engines. Although small and low powered by today’s standards, these engines represent a quantum leap in power plant technology.
One of the first aircraft that welcomes visitors to the two large hangars that house the collection today is the Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer patrol bomber. It was flown to the museum in 1992 after a distinguished career as a firefighter. It is currently being restored to flying condition in its original Navy patrol bomber configuration, a project that will probably take about four years to complete, utilizing the Museum’s mechanic and restoration staff plus specially trained volunteers.
One of the most important aircraft in the collection is also one that is most often overlooked by visitors. A World War II-era Douglas A-20 Havoc medium bomber sits unobtrusively near the entrance to the exhibit hangar. It is not a particularly provocative-looking airplane in its olive-drab paint markings. Nor does it vividly preserve the memory of a momentous aerial campaign, as does the B-25 of the Doolittle Raiders. It is simply the last one of its kind in the world that can still fly. Because of this honor, the A-20 will most likely occupy a safe place in the museum’s exhibit hangar forever — and will most likely never fly again.
The museum’s flight line of Grumman fighters is perhaps one of the most impressive exhibits. The F3F-2 “Little Cat” begins the visitor’s walk through one of the most significant aviation technological advancements in history. Parts salvaged from a wreck on the island of Maui in 1987 provided the inspiration and foundation to actually refabricate the entire aircraft, using 20 percent of the salvageable parts, the original blueprints from Grumman, and the genius of restoration expert Herb Tischler and his Texas Airplane Factory. The result was the miraculous resurrection of an airplane that was the front-line U.S. Navy and Marine fighter in the early 1930s and continued on active duty until just before World War II. In 1993, the museum’s F3F-2 won the impressive Phoenix award at Oshkosh–a fitting finale to almost four years of painstaking research and restoration.
The museum’s F4F (FM-2) Wildcat, successor to the F3F, was the first monoplane Navy fighter. Following the outbreak of World War II, Grumman vastly improved on F4F by producing the legendary F6F Hellcat. An added benefit to visitors, and complementary to the pristine F6F, is a knowledgeable F6F fighter pilot on the volunteer staff. An F7F Tigercat is also on hand, and the museum administrators would like to acquire an F8F Bearcat to complete a magnificent collection of Grummans.
The period following World War II was a time when competing ideologies resulted in huge technological advances in aviation. The threat of Soviet expansion, both territorial and ideological, gave a decided boost to the development of the first supersonic, nuclear-capable bomber–the B-58 “Hustler.” The museum’s cosmetically restored example is one of only four B-58 airframes left in the world. It is a major focal point of man’s aeronautical achievements in the postwar era. The U.S. Air Force has graciously loaned the bomber to the museum indefinitely.
Just across the walkway from the sleek, delta-winged bomber is a Naval Aircraft Factory N3N biplane trainer. Following the decision to abandon the military and civilian use of dirigibles in the 1930s, the United States had a massive surplus of aluminum that was to have been used for the construction of airships. To effectively use this surplus, the Naval Aircraft Factory fabricated the N3N–a strong, versatile, two-seater biplane that was used as a primary trainer from 1936 to 1960. Another vintage trainer in the museum’s flying fleet is the Cessna T-50 Bobcat. Appropriately referred to as the “Bamboo Bomber” because of its construction of wood and cloth, this aircraft was used in the late 1930s and 1940s to train future pilots of multi-engine aircraft.
The naval multi-engine aircraft collection includes the PB4Y-2 Privateer restoration, a Lockheed PV-2D Harpoon, and a Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina. The Harpoon was flown to the museum in 1990, and is currently on static display awaiting restoration. The Catalina is one of the more popular and identifiable aircraft on exhibit, and is revered by many World War II pilots as a lifesaver. Visually it relates well to the proverbial duck out of water, but it seems to engender a comforting feeling in World War II-era visitors. The museum’s Catalina sports a rare gun turret in the nose.
A Vought F4U-5N Corsair complements the Grumman Navy and Marine Corps fighter collection. It is painted as a night fighter such as the one flown by Lieutenant Guy P. Bordelon, the only pilot to become a Korean War ace flying a propeller-driven aircraft. The museum’s Corsair won the Best Corsair award and Snap-On Tools Corporation’s impressive Silver Wrench award–a tribute to superb craftsmanship–at Oshkosh in 1994.
The Corsair also is one of the most popular aircraft during the museum’s quarterly Fly Days, when many of the aircraft are rolled out, fired up and flown for the public. These well-publicized special events are an enjoyable supplement to the museum’s static displays.
Newest additions to the museum’s sponsored restoration projects include a Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan trainer that was used by the Army Air Corps to prepare bomber pilots and crews and a Cessna A-37A Dragonfly, the only functioning jet aircraft presently in the museum’s collection. The Dragonfly is painted in the markings of the 8th Special Operations Squadron (SOS), 14th Special Operations Wing (SOW), at Bien Hoa Air Base, Vietnam, in 1970. In addition to the PB4Y-2 in-house restoration, the museum has two long-term restoration projects that include a Hawker Hurricane MkIIB and a Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless dive bomber.
The museum has begun to develop several programs that benefit its growing membership as well as the academic community. Teachers were contacted in the local area to determine how the museum could help them teach history, math, science and technology. As a result, classroom activities were developed to supplement information that was available to teachers in textbooks. There are plans to publish a curriculum guide for use in the classroom, which will help to prepare students for a more educational field trip experience. Workshops have been offered to assist the teachers.
A volunteer service organization has been developed so that interested members can help in several areas of the museum’s operations. Members can attend training classes to become docents for school groups and the general public, or to learn proper care and handling techniques for the collection of artifacts, documents, visual arts and books. There also are opportunities to learn the practical application of proper maintenance and restoration procedures and standards so volunteers can assist the shop mechanics and restoration specialists.
The Lone Star Flight Museum has enjoyed tremendous growth since it opened its doors in 1990. This growth is in response to the museum’s healthy international reputation for high standards of excellence in restoration practices, the successful way its staff integrates the educational benefits of the collection, and the leadership that provides the vision for future growth.
Additional information regarding the museum and its programs can be obtained by writing: Lone Star Flight Museum, 2002 Terminal Drive, Galveston, TX 77554. The telephone number is (409) 740-7722. *
By T.J. Zalar