Eastern Pennsylvania offers a wealth of museums, many of them world famous, making the area a great destination for airplane owners.
Philadelphia’s elegant Greek-temple-like Art Museum and nearby Franklin Institute, not to mention Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, doubtless are the best known. On a pedestal outside the Franklin Institute stands a gleaming stainless steel amphibian, which has been shining there since the 1930s – with nary a touch of polish. Inside are many aviation wonders, including a Wright Model B delivered to a Philadelphia sportsman who was taught to fly by the Wrights.
Out in the countryside are some fine museums devoted to aviation, tending to be relatively small but with interesting and sometimes unique exhibits. The Mid-Atlantic Air Museum at Reading is an example of the latter. There, you can see one of the last four P-61 “Black Widow” night fighters in existence – and the only one destined to fly again. Its story is a saga of determination and struggle, for it was recovered from a mountainside in New Guinea. At the American Helicopter Museum is a V-22 “Osprey” – the only one in civilian captivity.
On a recent trip through eastern Pennsylvania, we stopped first at the American Helicopter Museum at West Chester, just outside Philadelphia. Located on Brandywine Airport (N99), it houses America’s largest collection of rotary wing aircraft, ranging from the extremely rare to everyday workhorses.
The two rarest birds there are an early Pitcairn-Cierva autogiro and the only V-22 “Osprey” on public display – the Number Three prototype, as it happens. There are more than 40 more civilian and military helicopters, autogiros and convertaplanes on exhibit, as well. It’s a little crowded, in fact, but plans are under way for a substantial expansion.
Indeed, the American Helicopter Museum is far more than a place for preserving and showing flying machines. It is a valuable education center, as well, housing what librarian Lawrence Barrett describes as a “technical repository” – an archive of some 15,000 books, films, memoirs, magazines, manuals, pilot operating handbooks, engineering drawings and hands-on hardware which are available for study. All of it is being catalogued in a data base as fast as the volunteer staff can manage it, eventually to be available online.
A nice thing about this museum is its attitude toward visitors. Children can climb aboard many of the exhibits for a truly unique experience, as many were doing the day we visited. If you show up on a day when the museum is closed, but volunteers are there, the probability is that they’ll let you in.
From West Chester to Reading is a drive of about 40 miles or a mere hop by air. The Mid-Atlantic Air Museum is at Reading Regional Airport (RDG) where the museum sponsors its justly famous World War II Weekend each June.
The museum was founded in 1980 by Russell Strine and his father, who heard about the wreckage of a P-61 in New Guinea a year earlier and decided to rescue it. Along with 25 other enthusiasts, they formed the museum organization to acquire, preserve, restore and operate historic aircraft – not just the P-61. Today, the collection includes some 70 aircraft, some restored, some awaiting restoration, housed in buildings which were part of the Reading Army Airfield during World War II. The collection ranges from aircraft of the 1920s to 1983 and includes military, commercial and experimental airplanes in an eclectic variety.
Exhibits explain the history of the airfield, airplanes in the collection, and other aviation subjects. The last Custer Channelwing prototype sits rather forlornly on the ramp, one of the airplanes awaiting restoration, and a showcase inside explains the background of Harold Custer and his unusual airplanes. Similarly, a Capital Airlines Vickers Viscount – one of the first turboprop airliners – rests on the ramp while a large display inside tells about the airline, its airplanes and some of its pilots.
Getting the wrecked P-61 “Black Widow” night fighter from its crash site, 4,800 feet up Mt. Cyclops in New Guinea, to a hangar at Reading was a 26-year struggle, Strine said. The airplane had come to a stop in treetops, then fallen to rock-covered ground, where it stayed for 40 years to the day before recovery was started. Being above the rain forest line, and held above the moist soil by rocks, prevented serious corrosion and deterioration, he told us. All four crewmen survived. It had been flown only 10 hours before it crashed on a proficiency flight. “The tires still had air in them,” Strine said, wonderingly.
The long saga of dealing with the Indonesian government, native tribesmen, poisonous snakes and jungle vines finally ended in 1991, when the airplane arrived at Reading in pieces and volunteers began to rebuild it.
Right now it is more than 60% restored, Strine said, recently joined to its wing center section and sitting on its own wheels. Volunteers poke and prod its interior, removing or reattaching parts, as visitors watch. Soon the outer wing panels and tail will be attached and it will begin to look more as it did when it rolled out of the Northrop factory in 1944. The ultimate goal is to fly it, but that is “about $1 million and several years away,” Strine commented.
About 25 miles northwest of Reading is the tiny village of Bethel and, at equally tiny Grimes Airfield (8N1), is the charming Golden Age Air Museum on a 2,800-foot grass airstrip that will take you back in time. You’ll want to get there on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, however, if you expect to get inside. It’s closed the rest of the week.
At the foot of Blue Mountain ridge in scenic Berks County, the hands of time have been turned back – ‘way back – at the Golden Age Air Museum, very much a living museum dedicated to preserving aviation as it was in the two decades between the great world wars. That was the era of the barnstormer, flying circuses and the first airlines.
The earliest airplane there is a 1917 Rumpler, hardly a household name. It is joined by other, equally rare and unfamiliar aircraft – the 1930 Star Cavalier comes to mind – and about 25 others that are better known: Cessnas, a Travel Air, a Taylorcraft predecessor to the Piper Cub, an Aeronca C-3, a Curtiss Standard and a JN4 “Jenny” – along with several Ford cars and trucks of the era, and a World War II Link Trainer.
Not to be missed is the Piper Museum at Lock Haven, well to the north. It is, as one might expect, at the William T. Piper Memorial Airport (LHV) and, also not surprisingly, features Piper airplanes – a lot of them.
There is room for a lot of them because the museum is housed in the former Piper Aircraft Corp. engineering building, a 56,000-square-foot structure. It is staffed mostly by volunteers who, with the small paid staff, are well grounded in the history of Piper Aircraft, many having worked there, and who have an impressive understanding of American aviation. If you’re lucky, you may have William T. Piper Jr. as your guide.
It is fair to say that the museum is a work in progress, as its staff readily admits, but its exhibits of airplanes and equipment, its growing archives of Piper corporate and family records, flight journals and magazines, photographs and memorabilia, all available for public use, are fascinating.
The museum may be best known for its annual sponsorship of the Sentimental Journey to Cub Haven fly-in, which attracts Cub fans from all over the world and brings dozens of Cubs “home” to Lock Haven.
This year’s event, held late in June, featured the J-3 Cub and PA-23 Apache. An antique car show was part of the entertainment.
All in all, a drive or flight to eastern Pennsylvania’s aviation museums is a rewarding experience, for there are delights and surprises at every stop.
For more information:American Helicopter Museum: 610-436-9600
Mid-Atlantic Air Museum: 610-372-7333
Golden Age Air Museum: 717-933-9566
Piper Museum: 570-748-8283