Aviation’s Spirit, Heart Lives at EAA Museum

By Scott Spangler on July 30th, 2009

JetWhine-EAA Museum-1 Trekking west from EAA AirVenture’s AeroShell Square, past the Nature Center and around KidVenture, my destination was the new Founder’s Wing at the EAA AirVenture Museum. Savoring the cool quiet and subdued light, a line of exquisite 16-by-20-inch black and white prints in the gallery across from the Wright Flyer caught my attention and changed my plans.

JetWhine-EAA Museum-2 The exhibit is called Uncontrolled Airspace and it’s instantly clear that its creator, Steve Mark, is an old-school shooter who favors a 4-by-5-inch view camera with the swings and tilts that correct for the distortion we expect from modern cameras with fixed lenses and focal planes. The lighting is also old school, carefully controlled and balanced to the surrounding daylight or darkness. Each image is carefully composed, as it must be when you only have one chance, one sheet of film to capture it. Each evokes nostalgic memories of aviation past, of airport picnics and dashing pilots climbing into an open cockpit.

JetWhine-EAA Museum-5To my ineffable surprise I discovered that the images were taken in the last year (it was a Sukhoi in several images that gave it away), and all of them were captured in 2008 at Galt Airport, aka One Zero Charlie, in Greenwood, Illinois. Uncontrolled Airspace will be on display until October 31, 2009, and by itself it’s worth the trip.

Upstairs, the Founders’ Wing is in what used to be the museum’s Cessna Restoration Facility (the main floor is now a presentation space, this day filled with educators attending AirVenture’s Teachers Day). In three connected spaces it displays the intertwined lives of EAA and its parents, Paul and Audrey Poberezny.

JetWhine-EAA Museum-3 Two of Paul’s homebuilts, the one named for his wife and the other built for the 1955 Popular Mechanics article that introduced EAA to the nation, fly toward the bridge that leads to the Paul & Audrey Poberezny Founders’ Library. Along the wall are the photographic facets of EAA’s corporate personality, highlighting its culture and attributes. A hint of what’s to come is just outside the library. In a protective plastic box is an old manual Royal typewriter on a small kitchen table. In the carriage is Volume 1, Issue I of The Experimenter, the newsletter that would become EAA Sport Aviation, which Audrey typed on this machine.

The personality of the exhibit is warmer, more human in the Founders’ Library, which starts with a recreation of the Poberezny’s basement, where they nurtured their offspring organization. While the concrete block walls and floor joists above are fake, everything else is original, from desks and chairs to the maps and pictures that hang on walls.

JetWhine-EAA Museum-6 In the next two rooms are artifacts, mostly from Paul’s aviation life, both as a military aviator and with EAA. Together, there are probably a thousand or more items on display, but it’s only a fraction of what Paul and Audrey have saved over the years.

Some might say they preserved the memorabilia of their lives for posterity, but I doubt it. In going through my father’s house after he passed earlier this year, I was surprised at what I found, and friends in similar situations reported similar discoveries. People who came of age during the Depression don’t discard anything they deem important.  With my dad it included everything related to his first house. With Paul and Audrey it includes every letter he wrote to and received from aviation’s everyday enthusiasts and luminaries.

It is this archive that is aviation’s treasure, and I hope EAA is preserving what is surely the most comprehensive and complete documentation of general and recreational aviation in the world. Being eternally curious, in years past I spent a fair amount of time with Paul at his home office and museum. As we talked about this and that, he’d jump up, scurry to a filing cabinet, and retrieve a letter from Anne Morrow Lindbergh or a chapter president who wrote him in the 1960s.

It was a harmonica, on display with the hat and camera that Paul took with him to Korea, that evoked these memories. On one of my visits I saw one of those over and under harmonica’s sitting on a low bookshelf. Asking about it, Paul answered by playing a lively 5-minute concert. He was more than talented enough for a spot on the Ed Sullivan show. Expressing my surprise at this unknown talent, Paul shrugged his shoulders and said matter-of-factly, “I’ve been playing since I was a kid.” And I wonder what other happy surprises await in the collection Paul and Audrey spent a life building. — Scott Spangler

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