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Completing a part of aviation history

By By Bob Martin, The Alabama Scene
On March 26, 1910, Orville Wright soared above the cotton fields west of Montgomery. It was the first flight of an airplane in Alabama and one of the first few flights in the world.
On March 26, 2010, a group of dedicated aviation buffs, headed by Floyd McGowin Jr. of Chapman will dedicate The Wright Brothers/Maxwell Field Museum, a new educational institution to commemorate the history of aviation in Alabama and to inspire the future of aviation.
The site selected by the Wright brothers as the nation’s first civilian flying school has developed throughout the past century to become Maxwell Air Force Base, home of the Air University, the Civil Air Patrol, and almost 30 professional military schools.
McGowin believes the new museum will become a huge tourism destination along heavily-traveled Interstate 65, connecting the U. S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville and the Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, completing an aviation heritage trail that will highlight Alabama’s contributions to flight…all the way from the dawn of powered flight to manned space flight.
The centerpiece of the museum will be an exact reproduction of the Wright Flyer (circa 1909-1911) used by the Wright Brothers, who established the world’s first civil aviation school in Montgomery. The aircraft, valued at more than $1.5 million, will be donated to the museum by the Discovery of Flight Foundation. Several other vintage aircraft once were common sights flying over our skies, will also be on display.
These include a rare Curtiss JN-4D Jenny (which flew at Taylor Field in Montgomery in World War I), a Boeing Stearman PT-17, a Vultee BT-13; and a North American AT-6. Each of these planes served significant roles in the flight training programs at Maxwell and Gunter Fields during the Second World War.
“This is going to be a world-class museum,” said McGowin, a member of the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame and also a member of one of the state’s most prominent business families. (His grandfather, father and other family members helped make W.T. Smith Lumber Company the state’s largest and best known timber and lumber business).
McGowin, who serves as president of the Wright Brothers/Maxwell Field Foundation, said Montgomery is the perfect home for such a museum. Its focus will be three-fold:
About 20 percent of the museum will focus on the Wright Brothers’ short but historic time in Montgomery and on the “theory of flight … and why do airplanes fly,” said McGowin. He said many Alabamians either do not know, or do not fully appreciate, the historical significance of aviation’s most famous citizens (the Wright Brothers) choosing to locate their first civilian flight school in our state.
The Wright Brothers trained five pilots in Montgomery. After they were trained, most of these pilots spent most of the next two years flying in exhibitions all around the country.
The Wright Brothers were going to house their first flight school somewhere, it just happened to be in Montgomery (because of its climate, flat terrain and the great reception Wilbur Wright received from community leaders when scouting sites for such a school).
It’s almost 100 percent certain to say that if the Wright Brothers had not selected Montgomery for their flight school, the city would today not be the home to Maxwell Air Force Base. Today, Maxwell Air Force base employs approximately 12,280 active duty and civilian employees, making the base the largest employer in the county (larger even than state government).
The Montgomery museum, when completed, will become an important component of an “Alabama Heritage Trail” of historic aviation and aerospace sites, said McGowin.
To the north, there’s Huntsville and the Marshall Space and Rocket Center; in Birmingham there’s the Southern Museum of Flight; just east of Montgomery is Tuskegee, home of the famous Tuskegee Airmen. At Fort Rucker – home of helicopter training – is a first-class Army Aviation Museum. Mobile is home to Battleship Parkway, which includes many eye-opening aviation exhibits.
Put it together and the I-65 corridor is full of interesting stops for anyone interested in the history of flight. The reproduction of the Wright plane will be one of approximately 10 built by the engineers and technicians at The Wright Experience. Previous reproductions include the first Wright plane which made history at Kitty Hawk and was flown on the 100-year anniversary of the world’s most famous flight (made in 1903). Only six actual Wright Brothers planes still remain. The reproduction planned for Montgomery will “be exact in every detail.
Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent. Email him at: bob@montgomeryindependent.com