Airplanes and Memories: Unlocking the Stories of an Institution

By Tianna Darling

Today, I had the pleasure of interviewing a restoration volunteer at the New England Air Museum in his late eighties who has worked here for fifty years. Beginning in 1970, this volunteer has made an impact on most of the aircraft in our collection; when asked what he has worked on over the years he states, “Almost everything. I’ve been involved in one way or another.” He knows where everything is, down to a specific bolt for a specific airplane part: “I remember stuff that I moved 20 years ago. I know right where to go pick it off the shelf.” I soon find out this is not an exaggeration, as he walks me around the storage building he refers to as his home, pointing out every piece of equipment on the numerous shelves. He remembers going to get certain airplanes, showing up to work after the 1979 tornado, what engine he has moved where, and why it was moved. It is all stored safely in his memory.

Photograph of the New England Air Museum, depicting plane parked outside of the hangar doors.

I am lucky to be able to intern this summer at one of my favorite museums, the New England Air Museum (NEAM), supported by a Charles K. Hyde internship fellowship. I may be slightly biased, as I have worked at NEAM for about a year and a half as part of the public programs team. This summer, I get to wear two hats: one on the museum floor interacting with visitors in my public programs team role, and another behind the scenes in my intern role, researching, writing, and interviewing for my project, “NEAM: 60 Years, 60 Stories.”

This year, the New England Air Museum celebrates its 60th birthday, although not quite in the way it expected to. As with other cultural institutions around the world, NEAM closed its doors to the public this March, reopening the outside exhibit Memorial Day weekend. It was the longest closure the museum had seen in its history. By the end of June, we were able to open our indoors to visitors, and are now operating as an “open air” museum. My project will hopefully bring some celebration, albeit virtual, to the site’s 60th year by highlighting some of the fascinating and important stories that have made NEAM what it is today. Through text, audio, and images, this virtual exhibit will bring attention to stories of aircraft, restoration projects, objects in our collection, institutional history, and the incredible people that make up the New England Air Museum.

I am sure that when, in 1960, the original members of the Connecticut Aeronautical Historical Association (NEAM’s parent organization) were celebrating their incorporation as a non-profit institution, they could have never imagined the organization would be celebrating its 60th anniversary in the midst of a global pandemic. However, this is not the first time the museum has survived a severe setback. On October 3, 1979, a tornado ripped across northern Connecticut, wreaking havoc to anything in its path. Unfortunately, this included the Bradley Air Museum (as NEAM was called at the time). The tornado upended, twisted, and tossed around enormous aircraft in the outdoor yard, and tore through the indoor hangar. While many aircraft were able to be restored, numerous planes were lost. This, however, did not stop the museum from charging ahead. Opening to the public shortly after the tornado, the museum then went on to open another hangar in a new location only two years after the devastating damage. The New England Air Museum is a resilient institution: in a mere 60 years not only has it handled the changing cultural and economic landscapes that historic institutions deal with every day, but it has also survived a tornado, and is now confronting a pandemic, while only growing stronger.

As a component of “NEAM: 60 Years, 60 Stories,” I am conducting short oral history interviews with a number of docents, restoration volunteers, board members, and staff at the New England Air Museum, both as part of my research and also to preserve the rich knowledge that each person has about different aspects of this museum. At any given time, NEAM has over 100 volunteers, working as restoration crews, craftsmen, docents, and everything in between.[1] My short interviews will not be encompassing this entire group, but will include approximately twenty interviews with volunteers, board members, and past and present staff, with a focus on those involved with stories chosen to tell for the 60th anniversary. These interviews opened my eyes to the amount of history that people have within their own minds that might never be shared if someone doesn’t ask. Institutional history is important to an organization; knowing where you have been can direct where you will go. My classmates in the UMass Public History program have recently worked on similar projects, such as the development of an excellent oral history handbook for Old Sturbridge Village to capture their stories for their upcoming 75th anniversary.[2] These types of projects undertaken with academic programs or with the help of student interns can help sites immensely, as most museums and historic sites may not have the staffing capabilities to undertake this type of project in addition to their own work.

NEAM has an amazing group of volunteers, each with their own rich background both at the museum and in the world of aviation: some have worked on one-of-a-kind aircraft in the restoration hangar; others celebrated their 100th birthday with NEAM friends just this past year; still others flew for Pan Am, worked on gear for the Apollo missions, and/or worked for the numerous aerospace organizations in the state of Connecticut. There are current and former staff members who remember details big and small about the museum’s history. These are the people who were working the day of the tornado, who helped the museum get back on its feet, who saw NEAM into a new generation. They remember details about restoration projects, such as how wheels were acquired for our one-of-a-kind Burnelli CBY “Loadmaster,” and how carefully the plane had to be weighed so as to not tip it over when the massive engines were installed on the front. They even remember details as small as what poem caused a laugh at a Christmas party. While records can tell you quite a bit about an organization’s past, recording these stories feels important on a different level. They are the personal connections people have to an institution, and show why this place matters to so many. Commemoration of an anniversary is an excellent time to emphasize the work done by staff and volunteers, while also thinking about the years to come.

The story of an organization can be lost if it is not preserved as you go along, and the people are the history. As we live through a global pandemic, my attention is drawn to the fact that this is now a part of NEAM’s institutional history, and now more than ever it is important to preserve the memories of the people that make the air museum what it is, both past and present. The New England Air Museum is an extraordinary place filled with extraordinary airplanes, but in my opinion it is the remarkable volunteers and staff that make this place truly special. I sincerely hope that these simple recordings may help someone down the road, asking themselves: what was it like to show up at work after the tornado? How did NEAM acquire the engines for the blimp car? What did it feel like to be a docent at NEAM in 2020? I feel honored to able to preserve even a fraction of these stories in whatever manner I can, and highlight what an outstanding museum NEAM has been over the last 60 years. One docent I interviewed today said it better than I ever could: “I came in earlier, they just opened the doors, and it’s like the place is coming alive. I see you walking by, you know, and I see a couple more coming through, I see the lights coming on, the displays coming on. It’s like the place is waking up.” The New England Air Museum is alive with the stories it has acquired over the last six decades. The common expression “if these walls could talk” could be used for NEAM, except they can: just ask our team.

Photograph of the interior exhibit space of the New England Air Museum

For more information about the New England Air Museum, visit their website at https://www.neam.org/shell.php?page=about_us_organization

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