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2020 in the Museum: Our Focus is as Clear as Ever!
By Ron Connolly, EAA Director of Museum and Education
December 21, 2020 – As we near the end of 2020, I look back in amazement at all that has been accomplished within the Museum and Education departments despite all that we have endured. As we entered the New Year, few may have been able to anticipate the challenges that laid ahead. As we returned from the holidays, the finishing touches were being added to the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) exhibit. In February, planning for both Air Academy and GirlVenture was just getting underway. When the WASP exhibit opened on March 10, little did we know that one week later we would be dealt our first of many unexpected challenges for the year: the closing of the museum! As the COVID-19 virus rapidly spread throughout our world, one by one, museum and education events were cancelled. First, Hops and Props, then Air Academy and then, the hardest blow of all, AirVenture!
As exhibits remained dark, galleries echoed in silence, and events continued to be cancelled, challenges seemed to mount. Though, for those who love aviation, challenge is no stranger, nor is it a deterrent. As facets of the pandemic impacted our lives and threatened the wellbeing of so many, we rolled up our sleeves and worked on ways to adapt to an uninvited change in lifestyle. With the postponement of Air Academy, Camp Director Scott Cameron immediately reached out to all of the campers registered for 2020 to make arrangements for their registration to roll over to Air Academy 2021 with no additional expense. As a result, 90 percent of those campers expected in 2020 will be participating in Air Academy 2021.
On March 31 Museum/Education welcomed a new educator, Cassie Cobb. The following week, Justin Payton came on board as our new AeroEducate Program Manager. Both Cassie and Justin adapted quickly and as the most recent additions to the Museum/Education Team, they leaned into their work full-tilt. The team initially worked from home, and met through telephone and video conferences. With diligent adherence to screening and precaution, a skeleton crew returned to the museum in early May. We washed, scrubbed, socially-distanced, and masked as never before. Through it all though, the ideas, visions, plans, and dreams never stopped. That couldn't have been more evident than when a UH-1B was delivered by Light Horse Legacy from Arizona to our museum in mid-June.
The aircraft arrived by flatbed and was escorted by volunteers from the Military Veteran's Museum, driving period military vehicles. EAA staff lined the driveway alongside the museum to see the helicopter that would become the showpiece of our newest exhibit, Huey: The Workhorse of Vietnam.
By the end of June, nearly everyone had returned to work. At that point we were fully engaged in planning for the reopening of the museum. Since group admission to the museum was being restricted for health and safety purposes, Cassie developed virtual activities that could be accessible online for teachers and youth who were unable to, or uncomfortable with, coming to the museum. In anticipation of the eventual resumption of educational programming, Cassie updated existing program offerings and developed new options. She worked to maximize the museum as a classroom and center for the exploration of the science of flight by developing adjustable vertical/horizontal wind tunnels. As the pandemic intensified, the next casualty of cancellation was Space Day. Undeterred, Cassie utilized multiple grants to develop the "Space Day in Your Classroom" initiative. She reached out to area schools and educators to invite them to create a space day event for their students by utilizing the online videos and activities that she had created. Additionally, she offered to send activity kits to the first 10 educators to respond with a request. The kits each include materials to engage up to 30 kids in crafting gliders, air rockets, parachutes, and various other forms of airfoils to spark curiosity, experimentation, and, of course, quality learning. The kits even include Space Day in the Classroom T-shirts for each of the kids! Cassie also frequently collaborated with Justin on the production of activities for AeroEducate.
Speaking of AeroEducate, since his arrival, Justin has rallied staff from throughout EAA to move the development of the web-based aviation learning resource forward at a remarkable pace. In June, partnerships with North Carolina State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University were solidified and their respective staff members have since been immersed in the development of aviation-related learning activities for ages 5 to 18, to be included as an integral part of AeroEducate. At approximately the same time, a partnership with United Airlines was formed. Additional partnerships are currently in development and we are excited about the possibilities! Web-page content development is well underway and reflects the embodiment of a collaboration to demystify aviation in the minds of parents and youth. Thanks to the work of Justin and all of the contributors, AeroEducate is on course to be introduced to the public in the near future and will offer, to youth, various pathways to experiences and careers in aviation.
The museum may have been dark for a short period, but thanks to our Museum Program Representative Chris Henry and our Collections Curator Ben Page, bright additions to the museum remained on the horizon. As exciting as the arrival of the Huey was in June, there was still plenty of work needed for the exhibit to reach completion. Chris and Ben worked closely with Director of Facilities Steve Taylor, Nick Hanson and Brandon Jacobs in Design, Hal Bryan and his editorial team in our Publications department, and Dave Schrubbe in IT to develop a captivating and informative exhibit space. However, the crown jewel of the exhibit, the UH-1B, would not be complete until all of its markings and external stores had been set in place. From August through November, thanks to the effort and contributions of Shayne Meder and Pat Rodgers of Aircraft Restoration Services, the aircraft was outfitted with the markings that it originally featured as a combat helicopter in Vietnam. Additionally, rocket pods, mini guns, and door guns were also re-installed to bring the aircraft to the same appearance that it had while in theater. Perhaps the greatest compliment that the exhibit production staff could have ever received was when, after seeing photos of the completed aircraft (the same one that he had served on), Vietnam veteran and former crew chief Mike Cusick commented that, "It looks like we just landed it, shut it down and walked away!" The exhibit has been complete since mid-November and a formal dedication is being planned for an undetermined date in 2021.
In the midst of working on the Huey exhibit, Chris and Ben took a short break and I accompanied them to Colorado Springs to accept the generous donation of aviation and aerospace artifacts from Test Pilot, Astronaut and Space Shuttle Commander Joe Engle and his wife and former Chief Knowledge Officer for NASA Jeanie Engle. Ben and Chris are currently working on the development of the Engle exhibit, to be housed in the Gorman Galley (next to the Borman exhibit). Expect to be able to visit the Engle collection in March of 2021.
On August 3, the museum reopened with visitor screening, disinfectant stations, and social distancing reminders in place. Despite high-touch areas being temporarily placed off-limits, there is still plenty to take in!
Other 2020 additions to the museum collection include a 22 foot replica of the Graf Zeppelin II, restored by its builder John Mellberg and donated to EAA by the Mitchell Gallery of Flight, located at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee. The replica and associated artifacts are located prominently along the mezzanine of the main museum. Just outside the Gorman Gallery, in the main museum, you can't miss the striking historical aviation art collection of Larry Jankowski. His art will be on display until late 2021.
As we set our sights on this New Year, we envision the resumption of our educational programming, the unveiling of AeroEducate, and the return of visitor favorites such as the Museum Speaker Series and Skyscape Theater Royale. Something new is also being planned in the form of monthly webinars that dive into the rich history of individual aircraft and artifacts of the museum collection. In addition to all else, we've even reserved room for a surprise or two in the year to come!
2020 truly has been a year like no other, but in an environment of considerable uncertainty, I can personally attest to at least one constant, the passion, dedication and drive of the Museum/Education team, no matter what the circumstances!
Wishing happy and healthy holidays to all! See you next year!
Ron Connolly, Ed.D
Director of Museum and Education
Experimental Aircraft Association, Inc.