April 5, 2012

Do you like this?

Nestled between the Middle Valley Recreation Center and Dallas Bay Skypark is a spectacle much more Huntsville than Hixson. Past the cheering ball fields of kids chomping on Dubble Bubble, you’ll find a small, baby blue building with a tacked-on sign that reads “Hixson Flight Museum.” Step inside and you’ll step back in time.

Walk the narrow path to the open doors and open arms of the volunteers and supporters that keep the museum in order. To your left you’ll see eerie pictures of passengers flying above Hixson during last year’s tumultuous tornado. To your right you’ll see rockets perched appropriately next to rocket launchers. Like any good museum, merchandise is centrally located as you walk through the entryway.

On any given day, you’ll find a handful of volunteers, both men and women, swapping stories and working at the museum. I was greeted by Brent “Poncho” Wade on my visit, and he was kind enough to give me an extensive tour with full commentary on each aircraft, which I appreciated both for the information and sincere interest he has for aviation. While at the museum, Wade goes by Poncho, a nickname he was given by other volunteers. After so many hours of service, volunteers go through a kangaroo-court ceremony and receive a quirky nickname. I also met director of operations Jody “Nutty Buddy” Whitmire.

“If you stick around, we’ll put a wrench in your hand,” said Whitmire. He emphasized that this is a working and flying museum, where volunteers keep maintenance on the aircraft and fly them to retain their order.

Aside from the entry room, the museum has two additional spaces that really take flight. Past the entry is the carefully restored hangar where all of the aircraft are stored, restored and showcased. The Ready Room next door is full of unique aviation memorabilia such as captain chairs, flight suits from the Korean War, and Russian clocks taken from submarines. Whether or not you lived through the Cold War era the museum documents, it’s easy to appreciate the features of the museum for the aviation and history itself. What I learned while at the museum was what an unexpected variety of military aircraft have been collected and transported to this tiny Hixson hangar.

Housed at the museum are two military aircraft, the Alpha and Bravo models of the North American T-28 “Trojan,” which was designed for pilot training. The Alpha was used by the Air Force and the Bravo was the Navy’s version, but both have combat history. Also stationed nearby is a Piper Cub, a general civilian flying plane that was also used by the military, and the L4 Grasshopper, used for sleek observation. A Soviet MiG 17 was used by the Polish Air Force and, once restored, will be the only static display at the museum. The Taylorcraft, made in 1946, is similar to the Cub, but uses a wheel instead of a stick for steering.

Although bound by limited space, the museum has not yet reached its maximum growth. “We’re on the Naval surplus list for a static display,” said Whitmire. Founder of the museum, Pete O’Hare, hopes to get more aircraft on display, and continue efforts of reaching out to the community, gathering more volunteers, expanding awareness and supporting the Children’s Hospital at Erlanger. The collection currently on working display at the museum is comprised of personal planes of the museum’s founders and supporters. “It’s important we have something physical so that visitors can be in touch with aviation in terms of arts and science,” O’Hare said.

At a time when interest in aviation seems to be decreasing, the opportunity to see aircraft and speak to knowledgeable volunteers can spark a newfound interest of aviation. For that reason, field trips and tours of the museum are offered and encouraged. The museum has been a destination for the Boy Scouts, public and home school students, but museum coordinators would like to see the number of group trips expand.


April 5, 2012

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