WINDSOR LOCKS — Connecticut led much of the aerospace industry’s rapid development throughout the second half of the 20th century, so it’s fitting that New England’s largest aerospace museum is located here.
The New England Air Museum, spanning three large hangars of exhibits adjacent to the Bradley International Airport, is home to over 80 restored military and civilian aircraft. Many of the exhibited planes and components were designed or manufactured in the state.
“So much of aviation and aerospace technology has been developed right in our state and the northeast. We really want to preserve those stories and present those stories and inspire the next ones that will take the next giant leap,” said Susan Orred, Director of Marketing and Development for the museum.
A staff of five full-time employees manages the museum operations, but the museum depends on a passionate group of about 150 volunteers. Some are aviators and aviation enthusiasts, others are current or retired employees from United Technologies Corporation and other local aerospace companies.
Some of the volunteers help the museum provide programming for the close to 4,000 students who visit the facility each year on school field trips. Orred says a focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in schools has led to an increase in student visits.
Other volunteers take part in aircraft restoration efforts, bringing many of the historic (and well flown) aircraft back to “like new” condition. None of the aircraft will ever fly again, but volunteers take tremendous pride in restoring well-flown aircraft to their original luster.
And they have been busy. Crammed into the Harvey H. Lippincott Civilian Hangar are dozens of aircraft, some parked underneath the wings of others. The museum occasionally moves things around to keep the exhibits fresh. But it’s not an easy task.
“We are planning a move this summer, just to refresh the look of things,” Orred said, “It doesn’t happen often, we need to rent special equipment. It’s been in the planning stages for three months already.”
Among the many civilian aircraft on display is a Lockheed Model 10A Electra that Orred said came off the production line only one or two ahead of the plane Amelia Earhart flew on her doomed voyage around the world. The volunteer who headed up that restoration effort, Bill Taylor, died in December at the age of 92. A plaque and his flight suit hang near the plane in memoriam. Taylor and other volunteers spent 15 years restoring the aircraft, according to Taylor’s obituary.
The pride of the museum is a meticulously restored World War II B-29 Superfortress, occupying its own hangar.
“You will not see a better restoration of a B-29. It’s pristine,” Orred said.
Its silver fuselage is so clean it acts as a mirror. Visible through the spotless nose window is a complete Norden bombsite, another Connecticut invention. An original in-flight data book is attached to the device.
Work was largely completed on the B-29 five or six years ago, but Orred jokes that the restoration team is never quite done.
“They are like painters, always working on it,” she laughs.
Orred says the museum hosts reunions for veterans who served on B-29s during the war. She recounted the excitement of some of the vets, including one who decided to crawl through a cramped tunnel that connects the front of the aircraft to the tail. He wanted to see if that section was how he remembered it. It was.
But aircraft are not the only historical connection Connecticut has to aerospace. Jerry Pasco, a retired engineer from Hamilton Sundstrand, chaired a committee that put together an exhibit describing how he and his co-workers helped save the Apollo 13 astronauts. Their efforts were depicted in the 1996 film starring Tom Hanks when engineers were tasked with “putting a square peg in a round hole” using spare parts available on board to save the astronauts oxygen supply. They created a makeshift “CO2 scrubber” to filter carbon dioxide out of the oxygen supply, and walked the crew through assembly. (Film clip)
“They called in the middle of the night, we’ve got a problem and we need you guys to help us,” Pasco said, “We had a crew at the ready to run any kind of tests NASA wanted.”
New exhibits are on the way. A World War II P-51 mustang is currently undergoing restoration as well as an F-104 starfighter and an A-10 warthog. The museum frequently hosts family friendly special events like its recent Space Expo, school vacation activities, as well as open cockpit events that take visitors inside some of the exhibited aircraft.
The museum is open 7 days a week from 10 am to 5 pm. Admission is $11 for adults 12 and up, $6.50 for children 4-11, those under 3 years old are admitted for free. Seniors 65 can visit for $10. The museum’s website is at www.neam.org.