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The Sky’s the Limit at the New England Air Museum
Michael Speciale

The more interactive the New England Air Museum becomes, says Michael Speciale, the more interest it’s able to generate.

Like other museums devoted to aviation and its history, the New England Air Museum has the ‘wow factor’ covered, with displays that excite and inspire people of all ages. But like other facilities of this type, the air museum understands that it must go beyond static displays of balloons, WWII-vintage bombers and ’60s-era spacesuits. There is a growing education element being developed at the Windsor Locks landmark, designed to augment math and science classes — and perhaps prompt young people to enter the still-vibrant field of aviation.

It takes about two hours to take in everything the New England Air Museum has to offer, from the Army-green war planes of WWII to the luxury of the Excambian, the last of the so-called ‘flying boats,’ to the NASA moon-man, waving at passersby in the lobby.

Michael Speciale, the museum’s executive director, says the facility does indeed offer a snapshot of aviation history in the U.S., with particular emphasis on the role played by the state of Connecticut, long known for its strength in aviation-focused manufacturing, at firms such as Sikorsky Aircraft, Pratt & Whitney, Hamilton Sunstrand, and others. Still, he said that times are changing; the world is a busy, fast-paced place, and museums with staid collections available for viewing only are no longer taking off as they once did.

“In the past, it was enough to hand out tickets and let people discover things on their own, but today our visitors, especially kids, need new, exciting things going on,” said Speciale. “It’s our goal to be a vibrant, active museum.”

In this issue, BusinessWest takes a look at how Speciale and his staff go about that assignment, through a host of recently developed programs designed to educate people of all ages, while also prompting young students to consider careers in aviation-related fields. These programs are aimed at creating a more-interactive attraction that honors the past, but uses the tools of today to teach and inspire.

Plane Speaking

About to enter its 50th year in existence, the New England Air Museum got its start in 1959 as the Connecticut Aeronautics Historic Assoc., an organization focused on preserving the Nutmeg State’s aviation legacy.

Speciale said it didn’t take long before Connecticut residents, veterans, aviation enthusiasts, and others caught wind of the agency and its mission, and thus began making donations of artifacts of all types and sizes.

“People started bringing things in as early as 1960, and after just a few years, the association knew it needed to find a place to store them,” he said. Around this time, the Conn. Department of Transportation (DOT), which oversees operations at Bradley International Airport, offered the group two WWII-era buildings on the airport grounds to create the beginnings of an aviation museum. “That’s when the artifacts started to come in a big way.”

From that day on, the New England Air Museum has grown and relocated a few times, but has never left Bradley. In 1979, a tornado that tore through the state damaged airplanes and hangars at the airport, including the two that housed the museum. That prompted a move in 1981 to where the attraction now stands — on Perimeter Road off Route 75 in Windsor Locks. Speciale said the DOT was again instrumental in erecting the museum, offering 58 acres of land and a no-charge lease.

Today, the museum operates as a private, non-profit business with a $1.3 million annual operating budget, overseen by a 24-person board of directors. The museum employs a staff of 16 (four are full-time), and works with a large cadre of volunteers numbering more than 200.

Over the past 30 years, the museum has grown from one exhibition hangar to three, packed with historic artifacts including the oldest surviving U.S. aircraft, the Silas M. Brooks Balloon; a vast collection of WWII-vintage planes and memorabilia, the crown jewel being a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, still being restored by volunteers; and an F-14 Tomcat fighter jet like that used in the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun.

“We have some outstanding gems,” said Speciale, “but one thing we didn’t want is to be the kind of museum where people walk in, say ‘that’s cool,’ and that’s it.”

Thus, there are new developments underway at the museum, and many of these initiatives are aimed at boosting attendance and diversifying the business model to ensure the facility’s longevity as a tourist destination. Speciale said this is a challenge for many cultural attractions across the country, which must compete with one another for visitors who have a multitude of options, but less time and money to spend than ever before.

“We’re very much like other museums,” he said. “As part of a natural evolution, general interest has declined. It’s a very challenging time for museums; people are busy, their kids are busy, and yet there are more opportunities for leisure-time activities.”

Last year, the museum welcomed about 61,000 visitors, a figure that’s down about 4% from previous years, said Speciale. To combat that drop in attendance, the facility has been making gradual changes to its repertoire. Some of those have been devised to partner more closely with Northern Connecticut’s robust business sectors, such as space rentals for unique banquets or parties among the massive planes, or for smaller business gatherings in the museum’s meeting rooms. But Speciale said the major focus is on education, and the role the museum can play in preparing today’s young people for the jobs of tomorrow.

“Our core mission is still to protect and preserve the history of aviation in Connecticut,” he noted. “But we’ve also added several programs centered on education, and I believe these will define our present and our future.”

Flight Plan

Most of these new, educational programs have been unrolled at the museum over the past five years. The first, and perhaps most intriguing, is ‘Soar for Science,’ which partners the museum with schools and school districts to provide curriculum-based lessons for students at the middle-school level throughout the year.

Speciale said the initiative was developed in response to two issues: first, a drop in the number of field trips made by schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut, which, in addition to being increasingly cash-strapped, must now adhere to strict, educational frameworks, and thus only schedule trips that fit into this predetermined model and assist students facing standardized tests.

The second issue, he added, is an overall lag in interest in math- and science-based career paths — including those in aviation — among the country’s middle-school-aged students.

“Using the collection, we’ve devised a number of science lessons that teach the laws of motion, and also utilize the collection,” said Speciale, noting, however, that this doesn’t amount to just a souped-up field trip.

In fact, Soar for Science begins as a relationship between a school and the air museum’s education department, which travels to various school districts and works with teachers and administrators to prepare cohesive lesson plans. The capstone of the partnership becomes the students’ visit to the museum, an all-day affair that includes a tour, lesson, lunch, and finally a hands-on experiment to put theories to the test.

“Kids spend all day here examining the artifacts, collaborating with each other, and comparing notes,” said Speciale. “Then, there’s follow-up in the classroom.”

Last year, about 150 classrooms, including some from Springfield and Westfield, benefited from Soar for Science. What’s more, the program is offered free of charge to school systems through a unique sponsorship plan. The cost to accommodate one class is $1,250, and the museum works to secure corporate and foundation sponsors for each.

Entities such as MassMutual, the Davis Foundation, Newman’s Own Foundation, and Northeast Utilities have picked up the cost of multiple local classrooms, and Speciale said demand is rising.

Another program unveiled recently at the museum, a ‘scientific literacy’ endeavor, has been funded for three years by the Hartford Foundation of Public Giving. The initiative is less formal than Soar for Science, providing for a team of staff members who are not unlike docents, providing impromptu information and activities to children and families throughout the course of their visit. The grant from the Hartford Foundation provides for staffing and publicity of the program, which Speciale said has been added to an already-robust set of special events held throughout the year.

These include ‘open-cockpit days’ on one of several large aircraft in the exhibition hangars, the LEGO engineering challenge, often held on the museum grounds, and educational workshops for children and adults, ranging from space science to women in aviation.

Soon, a third initiative will be added to the list of activities: a new career-education attraction for young people that is now under construction.

Dubbed KidsPort, the new area will be geared toward students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and teach the ins and outs of various aviation-related careers, from customer-service representatives to cargo handlers to engineers, through a set of child-oriented, touch-screen portals. The area is being constructed in partnership with software-development company Catabia, and is slated for completion this fall.

Wheels Off the Ground

Speciale said all of these projects have been developed to create a strong, interactive bond between visitors and the museum’s exhibits.

“Everything is planned to train and inspire people,” he said as he strolled through the collection, pausing now and again to touch a propeller or wipe a speck of dust away with his thumb. “Overall, I think we’re doing very well.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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