t was a cold and misty day as we prepared for flight. Without taking our feet off the ground, the Carolinas Aviation Museum flew us through history and back.
Perched on the edge of what was then called Morris Field in Charlotte, the museum is housed in a 1936 WPA project hanger. Shortly thereafter, barracks were added when the site became a training base for all B-25 crews during WWII.
Curator Dean Demmery, a Vietnam veteran, guided us through this hanger of memories. Docents are available Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Using this service is the best way to get the most from the museum experience as Demmery and his crew tell the stories that make the displayed aircraft and equipment come alive to their glory days. In some way, just about everything here served Uncle Sam.
Stepping into the cold, damp hanger brought to mind a time before comfy airport terminals, when flying was expedient, not luxurious.
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The hanger is packed with bits of history that tell stories of flight and war. Showcases display memorabilia from Eastern Airlines during the 1960s to '70s; the Vietnam War with U.S. and Viet Cong propaganda leaflets, and an M-16; a flight suit similar to what Sen. John McCain would have worn during his tour of duty; and scale models of planes that have touched the museum in some way.
There are several pieces of pilot training equipment, such as the Boeing 727A training cockpit. There is a13,000-pound landing gear from a 747. Against one wall is a propeller from a Royal Canadian Air Force C-47 that, according to our guide, the Canadians don't even have in their museum. We learned British and Canadian planes were held together with rivets, while the U.S. used bolts.
Turning the corner, we couldn't miss the queen of passenger aviation -- the Douglas DC3, fully restored and operational. It carries the Piedmont Airlines name as this type of airplane opened the Carolinas to continental travel. Seating 19 with pilot, co-pilot and one attendant, this plane did not have a pressurized cabin or offer air condition. It did offer boxed meals, however. Each wing holds 400 gallons of gas. In the early days of commercial flight, there were no hydraulic boosts, so DC3 wing flaps were fabricated from cloth, making it easier for the pilot to manually maneuver the plane. I saw fresh oil spots under one of the DC3's radial engines.
"If it doesn't leak oil," Demmery said, "It's empty."
Pilots affiliated with the museum fly the DC3 and other museum aircraft to air shows and events. The DC3 has appeared in movies like "Glory Road."
Visitors, accompanied by a docent, can climb the steps and walk up the slight incline to view the cabin. The headrest covers represent the sponsors who contributed to its restoration.
On the other side of the DC3 is an aviation rarity -- the 1947 D-558 Skystreak.
"A subsonic craft used to give airflow measurements as there were no wind tunnels then capable of these tests."
Nestled near its wing sits a 1948 Midget Mustang racing plane.
In the back of the hanger, a replica of a Mercury space capsule has a cut away showing the tight fit an astronaut endured.
Next to the capsule is the Boeing Strearman Kaydet training plane. Think Snoopy, Red Baron and bi-wings.
Then, we went outside. Before we stepped up into a section of the KC 97 Stratotanker air refueling plane, we saw the jets -- Super Tomcat, Harrier, Skyhawk, A-7E Corsair II, Voodoo, Shooting Star, Thunder Jet, Phantom II, Delta Dagger -- their noses aligned in perfect formation as if waiting to be called back into military service. (Demmery said they have a "Top Gun" type of jet coming soon.)
They share the tarmac with their helicopter brothers: Grumman Mohawk, Bell Iroquois Huey, Bell Cobra, Sikorsky Dragonfly, Boeing Sea Knight (which had "flown in every theatre of operation the Marines were called to participate in") and Sikorsky's Jolly Green Giant.
Out here, the hands-on exhibit is the Stratotanker. During the 1950s to '70s, these planes carried the fuel that kept military jets in the sky. The photo display inside the nose shows how it was done. While in flight, a crewman would lie on his belly, look down the fueling shaft through a glass bubble and guide the hose into the jet wing fuel tank. Sitting in the cockpit, we got a feel for what it was like to be a pilot and co-pilot, and not only the view, but an up-close look at all the levers, switches, dials, gauges and foot pedals needed to operate this aircraft.
Some of the jets and many of the helicopters are on loan from a branch of the armed services. One copter is set up for visitors. Inside we got the utilitarian feel of these war workhorses.
Just outside the copter area is a brick memorial walk. Representing all "theaters of operation," bricks are available for purchase.
About to go back into the hanger, Demmery drew our attention to the picnic tables and viewing platform. The museum sits just at the edge of a Charlotte-Douglas International runway. He pointed to the windsock on the hanger.
"When its blowing south," he said, "the planes taxi up from here. Kids just love it."
Carolina Aviation Museum is a nonprofit, volunteer facility. They have about 200 aviation-loving members with 40 actively involved in every facet of operations including docents, manning the gift shop, and repairing and restoring planes and equipment.
There are three locations under the museum umbrella: The museum itself, the non-lending Dolph Overton Aviation Library that houses more than 10,000 aviation magazines and will soon be adding 32 volumes of WWII vintage "Morrisfield News," Demmery said; and Dobbs House, once the place for food services when "airlines served meals," it's now the museum's restoration facility.
The gift shop offers aviation prints, postcards, models, T-shirts, magazines, hats, toys, books, pins, key chains and rubber ducks outfitted with flight cap and scarf.
Just before we left, we met Kent, an aviation buff who "served in the trenches of Myers Park High School;" Eric, a 'Nam and the Cold War veteran;" and Ken, "Marine Corp, mostly Cold War."
Demmery said at 10 a.m. Tuesdays, WWII veterans gather and talk.
"We have been recording their stories, but are looking for a host and a producer to do more," he said.
I thought about my father, who died five years ago. He served with the 91st Troop Carrier Squadron as a parachute rigger. He would have had his own stories to tell.
Susan Doyle of Rock Hill is a freelance writer. Her column appears monthly in the Lake Wylie Pilot. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to go?
WHAT: Carolina Aviation Museum
WHERE: 4108 Minutemen Way, Charlotte
HOURS: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday- Friday,10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
ADMISSION: $8 for adults, $5 children and seniors
WEB SITE: carolinasaviation.org
DIRECTIONS: From I-77 take the Billy Graham Parkway to Morris Field Drive. Turn right onto Airport Drive.
• Metrolina Expo Antique Show April 1-5: The F-4 & KC-97 cockpits, the Huey helicopter and other displays available.
• N.C. Transportation Museum in Spenser May 9: The F-4, KC-97 cockpits and the Huey helicopter
• Speed Week May 14-25: The F-4, KC-97 cockpits and the Huey helicopter, Gamma Goat; anti-aircraft gun and more.