Story and Photos By Mary Gallagher
Just a year ago Tennessee’s first major aviation museum opened in Sevierville at the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport and for good reason as the foundation of the Tennessee Museum of Aviation’s exhibit aircraft are active flying warbird aircraft.
At the brand new 50,000 square foot aircraft hangar and museum, visitors are frequently treated to impromptu flight demonstrations taking place from the airport’s runway located next to the museum hangar. A 120’ wide hangar door opens to the museum’s aircraft ramp and approximately 500 ft away is the active airport runway.
This was a particularly nostalgic experience for me, as my father was an airplane mechanic on an air carrier in the Pacific in World War II, a pilot and built several small airplanes in our garage at home. He also purchased an old fighter plane keeping it at Wold-Chamberlain Field now Minneapolis/St. Paul International. It had a double bubble cockpit and at age five, outfitted in my leather jacket and helmet, we would fly around on Sundays. It always brought a big cheer from the crowd when I climbed out of the cockpit. My first taste of applause!
My dad could also tell you what type of plane was flying over by the sound of the engine without ever looking up. Even if he was wrong, I didn’t have a clue.
Aviation Museum Founder, R. Neal Melton selected the airport in Sevier County in 1999 because the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport serves as a primary air transportation link for corporate and general aviation aircraft to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge-Sevierville resorts area. The Smoky’s are not only a top national tourist destination, but also the most frequently visited vacation destination for citizens of Tennessee.
Melton then offered to provide a home for the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame, established in 1996 by it’s founder Bob Minter, and recently made the state’s official aviation hall of fame by the General Assembly. It was especially important to Minter and his Board of Directors that the Aviation Hall of Fame be accessible to Tennesseans. Minter said, “the fact that the Great Smoky Mountains are the number one vacation choice for Tennessee families made our decision an easy one.”
Soon after agreeing to combine the new Tennessee Museum of Aviation and Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame, Neal Melton asked Bob Minter to serve as the Museum’s Executive Director. Melton and Minter are native East Tennesseans who with a comprehensive knowledge of the area and its potential for the museum project and each has a passion for airplanes and aviation history. Add to this a deep love of country and their shared vision for the new Tennessee Museum of Aviation is easy to understand.
I can guarantee a tour of the Tennessee Museum of Aviation will be a moving, patriotic experience. Most of us have family members or in some cases ourselves who were active in World War II. The museum also features a comprehensive collection of artifacts and memorabilia including the Vietnam War and other military confrontations. Anyone especially in their sixties will have a hard time keeping a dry eye. They are always on the lookout for artifacts from servicemen and their families that will enhance the exhibits.
In addition to an ever-changing fleet of about 20 aircraft you’ll find something of interest for everyone. Children will enjoy learning what makes an airplane fly and can even take the controls in “virtual flight.”
A special section on Aviation Career opportunities will also showcase Tennessee’s aviation educational institutions. The Flying Spirit Gift Gallery has items related to aviation and several of my group purchased books, tie tacs and ties as gifts. Proceeds help fund museum programs.
The Museum Hangar is heated and ventilated with excellent acoustics for musical events. It can accommodate dinner parties of up to approx. 1,200 and they provide free parking. Our smaller group had a catered buffet with musical entertainment that went extremely well and the crowd did a lot of moving and mixing as they viewed the magnificent planes surrounding us.
Plans to enlarge the facility are in the future but as one who has visited some of the mammoth aviation museums, in Pensacola and Ohio, this one was quite manageable and a worthwhile stop for a few hours.
The Tennessee Museum of Aviation and Hall of Fame a non-profit, educational entity.
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