You might think that the Air Capital would have one of the most stellar aviation museums in the world. Well, not yet, but things are definitely looking up.
Lovers of aviation and its history gathered at the Kansas Aviation Museum on August 27 to celebrate what’s been accomplished in its 25-year history and to look ahead.
First, a Brief Look Back
In 1990, the museum was founded and housed in what had once served as the Wichita Municipal Airport. The once-grand terminal looked bound for demolition. The beautiful open atrium had been covered up with a second-story floor. There was no central heating or air conditioning. No elevator. Broken windows. A leaky roof. Pigeons roosted inside the building.
An Art Deco Masterpiece
The building had proud beginnings. In the mid-’20s, Wichita dreamed of an airport to match the city’s stature as the Air Capital of the World. Charles Lindbergh consulted on the airport’s design. He was among those touting the city as an attractive stopover for
transcontinental flights, which, of course, couldn’t yet fly coast-to-coast nonstop.
Once opened in 1935, the terminal became the face of Wichita. Wiley Post, Howard Hughes, Kansas’ own Amelia Earhart and many other celebrities crossed the ramp, admired the stylized art deco terminal and dined in its restaurant. It’s said that Fred Astaire once entertained fellow passengers by dancing in the atrium while awaiting a flight.
During the 1940s, the airport was one of the nation’s busiest, with a takeoff or landing every 90 seconds. In 1953, that changed when Wichita built a modern municipal airport on the other side of town. Airport operations moved to west Wichita and for the next 30 years the old terminal was used by the United States Air Force and Kansas Air National Guard. Then, no longer needed, the doors were locked and the building abandoned.
Many Visions, But All of Them Different
Many people carried the torch for a world-class aviation museum housed in the old municipal airport – chief among them, the Wichita
Aeronautical Historical Association (WAHA). Unfortunately, Wichita’s major aircraft manufacturers each seemed to have distinctly and vastly different ideas of where an aviation museum ought to be and the role it should serve. Big personalities with equally big agendas resulted in little traction for a museum. But dedicated volunteers kept inching plans forward, slowing gaining altitude. A deal was made with the city to rent the former terminal building for a dollar a year. In 1990, the museum opened.
At the 25th anniversary celebration, WAHA former president and Kansas Aviation Museum forever board member Ed Sykes credited Ron Ryan, retired owner and president of Ryan International Airlines, as the individual who has done the most for the museum. Ryan took the opportunity to zing back to the crowd, “We need a dollar for next year’s rent!” Dollars started flying and soon Sykes had received enough for 25 years’ rent.
There’s much to celebrate. Museum staff, supporters and volunteers have fixed those windows and ceiling and ripped out the floor that closed in the atrium. In recent years, they’ve found more receptive ears to donation requests. They’ve added that much needed elevator and central heating and cooling; renovated thousands of square feet of exhibit, archive and meeting space; created scores of hands-on displays; retired a quarter-million dollars of debt; secured millions in grants and contributions; and so much more.
New Leadership Has the Right Stuff
Daniel Bateman joined as executive director in May 2015. He previously served as executive director for Spaceport Sheboygan in Wisconsin. The self-professed aviation aficionado is having a coming home of sorts. He began his career at the Kansas Cosmosphere in nearby Hutchinson. Board members and staff alike talk about the energy, experience and know-how Bateman brings to his role.
“Housing the Kansas Aviation Museum and Aviation Hall of Fame is a large responsibility, being in the Air Capital of the World,” says Bateman. “However having the opportunity to do so within such a historic building makes the job so much easier. To know that our guests are able to walk in the original airport terminal in Wichita makes the experience so much greater. The building really is the greatest artifact for the Kansas Aviation Museum.”
An Increasing Rate of Climb
Good things are happening at the Kansas Aviation Museum. You can get up-close-and-personal with historic, one-of-a-kind aircraft. Tap into vast archives of records, schematics, books, photos and memorabilia. Walk the Hall of Fame.
Visit the museum in southeast Wichita (3350 S. George Washington Blvd.) or online at www.KansasAviationMuseum.org