COLLEGE PARK – The Wright Brothers model, the first helicopter flight and the initial United States Postal Airmail Service are some of the main exhibits one can find at the College Park Aviation Museum.
The Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation brings the history of aviation to adults, teens and children seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for all of them to enjoy. Currently, the museum is constructing a new operations building and making other major improvements to help enhance the programs it offers in the community.
“We celebrate the ‘Field of Firsts’ which is the name given to the airport here because so many firsts happened here in aviation,” said Museum Director Andrea Cochrane-Tracey. “There was a lot of public interest, so a bond was put up and this structure of 2,700 square feet was built and opened to the public in 1998. We explore the history of early aviation in the 1900s through World War I.”
Cochrane-Tracey said since June, the museum has had visitors from 38 states and eight foreign countries. The tour guides have about four or five groups per day with a maximum of 120 people allowed in the museum at once.
The College Park Aviation Museum originally opened in 1982 in a small trailer at the far end of the airfield. Today, the museum features ten aircraft in its main gallery including original, preserved, restored and reproduction aircraft. The aircraft are displayed in chronological order starting with the 1910 Wright Brothers Model and ends with the 1946 Ercoupe 415D, a single engine metal aircraft.
Some of the museum’s longest inhabited exhibits include the Berwyn Helicopter and the Curtis Jenny. The Berwyn Helicopter, which is on loan to the museum from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, is an original and was tested at the museum in 1924. The Curtis Jenny was a huge competitor of the Wright Brothers’ airplanes. The first Airmail terminus flight left College Park to go to New York in August of 1918 in a Jenny.
“The Curtis Jenny has been completely restored so visitors are seeing it in prime condition,” Cochrane-Tracey said. “The Berwyn Helicopter is not perfect. It has that patina of age, so the visitors can recognize that it has gone through a lot and has a story to tell.”
When visitors head toward the end of the tour, the museum has a Taylor aircraft called the Imagination Plane for kids and adults to climb into and pull on the yoke. The Imagination Plane and other simulators allow visitors to pretend they are really operating a plane without actually crashing or injuring themselves in real life.
“It helps others understand the basic parts of a plane and they recognize the fundamentals of aviation haven’t changed,” Cochrane-Tracey said. “You get to see what happens to the flaps and move the tail runner.
“Our planes have become more sophisticated with the use of lighter materials and the inclusion of computers. All of the principals of flight that were explored in the early 1900s are still applied today. We try to tie in different innovative things and bring in people to lecture our visitors about parts of aviation that they are exploring.”
Funded by Maryland-National Capitol Parks and Planning Commission, the museum generates revenue from the general admission, local supporters, contributors, programming, special events and event rentals.
“People can rent the museum for special events such as birthdays and weddings. In fact we have a wedding here this weekend,” Cochrane-Tracey said. “Renters can completely transform the middle into a dance floor space and can do a cocktail reception in the mezzanine area. We also create a place where you can have an aisle and chairs set up for the ceremony.”
The Field of Firsts Foundation also helps support the museum and makes things happen that the museum’s own budget might not permit, like overhauling some permanent exhibits.
Lee Sommer, Airport Manager, began working at the College Park Airport in December and wants to get the public in to see the aviation campus of the longest running airport in the world.
“We have had some struggles since 9/11, but we are effectively rejuvenating the entire facility,” Sommer said. “We have a new operations building going up and are redoing the area for the aviation campus so that we have more space for people to come in and enjoy the facility instead just seeing one or the other. It should be a whole experience, so we will be getting a new building and a green walkway over the next few years.”
Sommer has flown airplanes for 40 years and said people are very adamant about holding onto the freedom of flight. He enjoys employing young people for the summer who are striving to be pilots and want more flight experience.
“The airport director Lee Sommer and I work very closely together and we are going to be able to include some program activities in the beautiful new meeting space that will be in the airport operations building,” Cochrane-Tracey said. “It will be a great resource, especially to have meetings and trainings because at this time we don’t have enough space.”
The museum’s construction of their new airport operations building will be done by the end of this year. The new building will provide pilots with much better visibility and line of sight while landing and flying.
The Aviation Museum is also working toward collaborating with the University of Maryland College Park to get it more involved in working with the younger students who normally attend the museum. They also plan on building an innovation hanger big enough to pull a small plane into for much needed repairs.
“The museum is in need of more computer stations on rolling carts and space where older students can come and enjoy the museum as well,” Cochrane-Tracey said. “We would like a flight simulator that would strictly be for adults who plan on obtaining a pilot’s license. The potential pilots will get a virtual experience of flying in snow storms or rain without crashing the plane.”
Cochrane-Tracey also appreciates the opportunity to work with Sommer because they both have been working on a bigger vision for the entire aviation site.
“We believe this airport has such a rich history and is important both nationally and internationally to our country, but not enough people are aware of it” Cochrane-Tracey said. “Museums are a great way to get kids out of the classroom and into a different setting because we all learn in different ways. I believe education is the most important component for any museum. Most students will remember factual information learned on a school trip to the museum as opposed to just reading about it.”
The museum is home to two Prince George’s County police helicopters, their pilots and crews. This exhibit provides a behind-the-scenes look at the daily life of the unit, its history and the dedicated unit.
The museum’s most recent exhibit is the Biological Flyers of College Park that is featured from now until August 28. The exhibit explores many different kinds of flight that birds and flying mammals do in the neighborhood skies. They will also host ‘Sangria under the Stars,’ where guests can spend a night stargazing from the museum’s outdoor mezzanine while sipping sangria from Boordy Vineyards. Guests will learn about the exhibits and making their own constellation.
“We also have the Tuskegee airmen here and the repository in the museum that shares all of this information about the airport as well,” Sommer said. “The preservation of aviation history combined with the operation of planes makes this campus a great asset to the county. We need people to continue learning how to fly and gaining more knowledge about aviation.”
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