Director Lon Smith Describes Wichita’s Living Aviation History Museum
The Kansas Aviation Museum is more than just a showcase for Wichita’s rich aviation history; it is history. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the museum is housed in Wichita’s original municipal airport terminal. Dedicated on March 31st, 1935, the Wichita Municipal Airport served as a major mid-continent stopover for commercial operations as the last stop before crossing the Rockies to Denver or Los Angeles. At its peak in 1944, the airport was one of the busiest in the nation with take-offs or landings occurring every 90 seconds. Wandering the museum, visitors are immediately transported back to the glory days of aviation, surrounded by grand terrazzo halls and art-deco design. Nearly every aviation and entertainment legend of the era roamed the building’s halls, from Howard Hughes and Fred Astaire to Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.
With the United States’ entry into World War II, an explosion in aviation manufacturing in Wichita altered the fate of the building. Tens of thousands of aircraft were built in Wichita for the War effort and the airport became a central location for flight testing and military supervision. On September 16th, 1947, the government established the United States Air Force as a separate element of the United States armed forces; by 1951, the USAF took over the Wichita Municipal Airport for pilot training on B-47s, B-36s, and eventually B-52s. For the next 30 years, the USAF and the Kansas Air National Guard used the location as Building One of the McConnell Air Force Base. In 1984, however, the USAF abandoned the building.
For six years, the historical location sat empty and partially gutted; after being leased by the City of Wichita to the Wichita Aeronautical Historical Association in the late 1980s, volunteers painstakingly began restoration efforts that continue to this day. On April 19th, 1991, the Kansas Aviation Museum officially opened to the public displaying an extraordinary collection of Kansas and national aviation history. The museum houses a world-class collection of rare aircraft, aircraft engines, and archive documents including the entirety of the original FAA identification cards from 1927 until 1994. In addition, volunteers have successfully restored such one-of-a-kind aircraft as a 1934 Stearman Model 73/Navy NS-1 Trainer and 1927 Swallow. Restoration continues through the astonishing efforts of the museum’s dedicated staff and generous donations from historical and aviation enthusiasts alike.
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