The welcome mat's out at the Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum's historic hangar
The display cases and historic hangar of the Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum -- located at runway’s edge at St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia -- are crammed with items of local aviation history:
- Headgear worn by early 20th-century aviators and mid-century spacesuits worn by astronauts while training in the Mercury space program
- A letter signed by Charles Lindbergh and a pilot’s license signed by Orville Wright
- Assorted missiles, engines, gliders, World War II trainers, and a Meyers bi-plane that had a famous owner: renowned balloonist Nikki Caplan, who flew a hot-air balloon through the legs of the Gateway Arch in 1973.
The aircraft, books and aviation what-not are housed in historic Hangar 2, constructed in 1929-30, as part of a national network of airfields built by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation during the early heyday of aeronautics: Just two years after Charles Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis solo across the Atlantic and a year after Amelia Earhart made a name for herself by riding along with pilots Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon on a transatlantic trek.
Museum curator Jack Abercrombie says that Lindbergh and Earhart, along with other noted aviators of the times -- James Haizlip, Wiley Post, Frank Hawks -- spent time at this hangar and the air college Oliver Parks ran next door.
Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum
Where: 2300 Vector Drive, St. Louis Downtown Airport, Cahokia.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday- Sunday, though it’s recommended that you call before going. Group tours can be arranged for other days. Phone: 618-332-3664 or 877-332-3664
Directions: For a map and directions, visit the museum’s website.
How much: Admission is free, but donations are welcome.
And nothing would make Abercrombie, 77, a retired McDonnell Douglas engineer, and his handful of volunteer docents happier than getting the chance to show visitors around their hangar and the exhibits they've constructed to celebrate the evolution of aviation.
But the nonprofit museum, which re-located here in 2005, is still flying low on the public's radar.
“First of all, I want people to know we’re here,” Abercrombie said. “Second, I want young people to come here and learn things that even their parents don’t remember. Kids today weren’t here during the beginning of the Space Age. We need to make them aware of that history. And backing up a bit, even many people my age don’t really realize how important St. Louis was in the early days of aviation, starting in 1909 with aeroplanes and even earlier with lighter-than-air craft.&rdsquo;
Abercrombie acknowledges that it can be tough sometimes to entice St. Louisans across the Mississippi River to visit the museum, but that’s something of a battle that the airport itself has fought since the 1930s when the older Lambert Field grew bigger and faster.
Aviation history that survived the flood
Abercrombie has some favorite items he likes to show visitors, including the Meyers biplane, WW II aircraft, and the space gear donated by Rose Church, who was a McDonnell Douglas flight nurse during the Mercury and Gemini space programs.
He also points out a large framed photograph of a bi-plane circling over the steamship “St. Louis” and Eads Bridge on the Mississippi -- an iconic image that captures the spirit of innovation that put the region on the aviation map in the early decades of the 1900s.
Abercrombie spent considerable time researching the origins of the picture, when he believes was taken by a St. Louis Globe-Democrat photographer in 1914.
Abercrombie, who worked for McDonnell Douglas for 35 years said he didn’t get his own pilot’s license until he was middle-aged, though his fascination with aviation began when he was a young boy. He grew up on a farm in Kansas during World War II and watched planes flying overhead from a nearby Army airbase. And he read the comic books of the day that planted the seeds of space travel in the minds of youngsters.
Talk to the museum’s members who donated much of the material on display -- and the money to rent the space and operate the place -- and their stories have a common bond: a passion for aviation, says Mark Nankivil, board president, whose father was a Navy pilot.
Nankivil concedes that the museum is a small concern, compared to other aviation and space exhibits in St. Louis, but he stresses its personal touch: tours given by members who can relate aviation experiences and the chance to see and touch aircraft.
The museum was started in the early 1980s and used to be based at Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield but was severely damaged in the Great Flood of 1993. It was a rough go in the years that followed and the collection was mothballed for a time before the museum was invited by St. Louis Downtown Airport to occupy its current site.
“We were happy to have someone who wanted us and a historic building, so we came here, Abercrombie said. “We have so much history right on this field and next door [at Parks].”