December 14, 2012

Visitors soaring at airport museum

Charlotte’s air museum has emerged from its stealth mode.

Charlotte’s air museum has emerged from its stealth mode.

Four years ago, the Carolinas Aviation Museum was housed in a humble hangar, one of the original structures at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, built as a WPA project during the Depression. When the hangar had to be moved for runway improvements, the small museum moved into the old Wachovia aviation hangar near the Air National Guard base.

Then, “Miracle on the Hudson” changed everything.

On Jan. 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 made a safe splash landing in the Hudson River after losing power following takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Operators of the museum talked to the insurance company that owned the Airbus A320. It agreed to donate the salvaged aircraft in 2011 and it became the museum’s centerpiece.

“Most people didn’t know we were around,” says Wally Coppinger, executive director of the museum. “It more than tripled our attendance.”

Within a year, the museum had about 60,000 visitors, up from 15,000, and may hit near 100,000 this fiscal year.

In addition to the Charlotte-bound jetliner that Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger guided onto the river, the museum displays other artifacts: a mink coat passenger Laurie Crane snatched from her seat when evacuating; a New York Times dated Jan. 15, 2009, from a seatback; river-silted and corroding Coke and Bud Light cans from the service cart. In a cranny in the cockpit, the museum found Sullenberger’s custom-made radio earpiece.

“We didn’t want to become just the Flight 1549 museum,” Coppinger says. Rather, the mission was to tell the story of aviation in the Carolinas.

Dawn of controlled flight

Visitors first encounter a replica of the Wright Brothers Flyer that took off on Dec. 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk and launched a century of human flight.

Piedmont Airlines – the Winston-Salem-based carrier started in 1948 and merged into USAir in 1989 – is represented with a classic DC-3 bearing its paint scheme. Nearby are the desk and office artifacts of founder Thomas Henry Davis, known to employees as “Boss Tom.”

There is the peculiar-looking single-engine biplane and flying boat designed by Savoia Marchetti that was flown in 1931 from London to Hong Kong by R.J. Reynolds heir Zachary Smith Reynolds of Winston-Salem. It is only one of two surviving aircraft of its type.

A variety of military aircraft are on display, including an F-14D Tomcat, the carrier-based Navy jet depicted in the Tom Cruise movie “Top Gun.” It is the last F-14 to launch on a combat mission before the supersonic planes were phased out in favor of modern fighters.

Origin of the museum

Eastern Air Lines began scheduled service to Charlotte in 1948 when the airport was a small terminal beside a hangar. Decades of expansion followed, and the hangar was targeted for destruction in 1991.

Floyd Wilson stepped up to rescue the historic landmark and, with a group of other aviation enthusiasts, formed the Carolinas Historical Aviation Commission. They saved the hangar and began collecting planes and memorabilia. In 1993, the Carolinas Aviation Museum opened.

In 2009, the museum moved to the old Wachovia operations base. In its new space near Billy Graham Parkway, the museum had room for expansion and classrooms for educational programs.

Museum’s new era begins

By then, Shawn Dorsch had taken over as president. Dorsch, who grew up in Winston-Salem, was a former investment banker with J.P. Morgan who had come to Charlotte to work for First Union and later founded Derivatives Net, which specializes in electronic trading systems. He had first joined the museum as a volunteer.

“I was really out of the box for the majority of people out there,” he says. “They were largely retired. I was very much a Wall Street-trading-desk, hard-charging guy. I think I brought a lot of kinetic energy to the mix. I kind of speeded up things maybe more than some of them were expecting.”

Dorsch, 48, who tends to move and talk at full-throttle, is proud that the museum – which recently was certified as a Smithsonian affiliate – operates without government support or grants from groups like the Arts & Science Council. With an annual budget of about $660,000, it pays its way through admission fees and exhibit underwriting from the aerospace industry, which is a critical part of the Carolinas economy.

Showcasing industrial angle

“A lot of people don’t understand how important aviation and aerospace are in our community,” Dorsch says. “Every 39 seconds on average, a plane takes off at Charlotte Douglas. There’s a tremendous food chain involved in that – a chain of people to enable safe operations at Charlotte Douglas every day.”

That’s part of the reason the Flight 1549 exhibit means so much to the museum, he says. Manufacturers across the Carolinas built components for the Airbus. One is Honeywell in Rocky Mount, which made the auxiliary power unit that enabled Sullenberger to manipulate controls when the engines failed.

Eventually, Dorsch hopes the museum will be able to put up its own building at the airport and expand its displays.

If that happens, he says, it will contain a bit of memorabilia from the airport’s earliest days. In storage are the original airport beacon from the 1930s and the air raid siren from World War II.

“And out in the weeds, we found original granite from the first terminal. When we build a new museum, we hope to incorporate it.”

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