Serendipity – While planning a trip to a family reunion, I discovered an aviation museum within minutes of our planned route. It was a well-timed and worthwhile side-trip.
The Aviation Museum of Kentucky is set in a rolling bluegrass landscape, adjacent to the Blue Grass Airport terminal in Lexington. This 12,000 square feet of space, includes two hangars and a gift shop. First opened in 1995, the hangars are packed with an eclectic assortment of historic and memorable aircraft—from classic pre-World War II and home built airplanes to an F-14 Tomcat (think Tom Cruise in Topgun) surrounded by a diverse collection of other aviation artifacts.
We were greeted by Shelly (Sheldon). He collected our admission and briefly explained the layout of the hangars, connected by a wide hallway that houses their Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame Awards. Across the lobby from the entrance is a well-stocked gift shop with books, aircraft models, along with clothing, hats, mugs and toys.
There I was…
Stepping into the first hanger, you are immediately greeted by an Air Force Thunderbird T-38 Talon advanced trainer and a Navy Blue Angel A-4 fighter.
The Northrop T-38—more than 1100 were produced between 1961 and 1973—is a supersonic, advanced jet trainer. As of 2015, the T-38 has been in service for more than 50 years. The fighter version of the same aircraft was designated the F-5, and this aircraft was the primary fighter of many smaller countries. From 1974 until 1983 the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team flew the T-38.
At about the time the T-38s joined the Thunderbirds, the McDonnel Douglas A-4 Skyhawk became the Blue Angels aircraft. It has since been replaced by the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet.
Suspended above the T-38 is the Polywagon, based on a design by Alverez Polliwagen, it was a home-built aircraft powered by a Volkswagen engine. It could cruise at 154 mph and carry two people 1000 miles. Built from plans, it was of mixed construction, including a composite (fiberglass and foam) fuselage, metal, and wood.
Directly under the Polywagon is a preproduction model of the General Electric engine to be used on the Boeing 747 airliner. This particular model traveled around the world to the headquarters of major airlines to show off the proposed engine as part of Boeings sales pitch.
There is no right way to explore the museum—simply wander from one aircraft or display to another. For example, the front wall has many images of military aircraft nose art from aircraft such as the Memphis Bell, Enola Gay, and Bockscar.
However, the “elephant in the room,” “hidden” behind several other aircraft and “tucked” away in the corner of the first hangar is an F-14 Tomcat. All of the other aircraft in the hangar are dwarfed in comparison.
The Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame was founded by the Museum and honor Kentucky sons and daughters who have influenced the world of Aviation. Beyond this area is the second hangar, filled with an equally diverse collection of aircraft and artifacts, including a Link instrument flight trainer and a Pratt & Whitney 36-cylinder engine used to power large transports and bombers.
One of the more interesting displays is the Sellers Quadraplane—a four-wing aircraft designed and built in Kentucky. This exhibit is a replica of the aircraft he built and flew in 1908—just five years after the Wright Brothers’ flight. The aircraft is also noted for being the first airplane to have retractable wheels—the Quadraplane had no brakes, so the wheels could be raised so the aircraft could land on skids to shorten the landing distance. The aircraft is mounted above a replica of Sellers’ workshop. There is also video of the aircraft being flown by Sellers.
Two aircraft, an F-4 Phantom and an RF-101 Voodoo fighter aircraft are parked on the airport ramp beside the museum. The RF-101 was a reconnaissance aircraft equipped with cameras and other sensors for gathering intelligence information. Both aircraft were flown extensively during the Viet Nam conflict.
The Aviation Museum of Kentucky is well worth the time. Allow four hours if you want to really dive into aviation and aviation history and read all of the placards and view all of the videos that are provided, in addition to the more than two dozen aircraft on display. Staff members, all aviation veterans, eagerly offer informal guided tours.
One display that many airman will appreciate is the Van Meter statue and associated artifacts. Van Meter, a Kentucky native, invented and patented the first functional parachute, which is on display. His prototype parachute, on loan from the National Air and Space Museum is also on display.
For more information, go to: http://www.aviationky.org
The Aviation Museum of Kentucky, Blue Grass Airport, 4029 Airport Road, Lexington, Kentucky 40510