Southern Museum of Flight is a unique aviation museum located near the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Alabama is a place for all ages who are interested in aviation history and aircraft. Open since 1983, here you will learn about the beginning of flight from the Wright Brothers Flyer to the sleek SR-71, Blackbird. The size of the bowtie shaped museum is a bit deceiving but the seventy-five thousand feet houses over a hundred aircraft displays, including aircraft from the early days of flight to the newer experimental planes. It is literally chock full of every kind of airplane you can imagine.
With nearly sixty thousand visitors each year, the museum can be a busy destination especially during the school year. Education is at the core of the museum and two-thirds of the sixty thousand annual visitors are school age children. They have a dedicated teaching area for school tours that can accommodate one hundred children. The staff of ten and the group of dedicated volunteers make the museum a centerpiece for Birmingham.
During my visit, I spoke with both Wayne Novy, the Director of Operations and Curator of the collection and Brian Barsanti, Ph.D., who has been the Executive Director since 2014. Both are former military men and dedicated to the preservation of flight history. Novy is retired from the Air Force and worked with Frank Borman, the commander of Apollo 8. Barsanti is a Coast Guard reservist and educator who teaches at both UAB and Huntington College.
In the main hanger we began our tour with an impressive exhibit about the Tuskegee airman which includes short videos and artifacts from members of the Tuskegee airmen.
One display focuses on a visit by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to the airmen’s training facility. To show her support of the Tuskegee airmen, the First Lady flew with Alfred Anderson on a short flight.
The Russian MI-24 Hind helicopter demotes the main hanger space. This enormous helicopter flew military men, machines and supplies.
Continuing with the history of the Tuskegee airmen, there is a large display about a B-25 that was raised from Lake Murray in South Carolina in 2005 where it crashed during in April of 1945 during a training exercise. This is one of the very few planes that remain that was flown by the Tuskegee airmen. At present only a small section of the salvaged plane is displayed but the volunteers and staff are hard at work in the restoration shop to bring the entire aircraft back to life for display.
Both the Korean War and Vietnam War are remembered through two large static displays, video presentations and many artifacts that have been donated to the museum.
We continued in the next wing to explore the beginning of flight with the Wright flyer and displays of early aircraft including a Huff-Deland crop duster biplane used by the Delta Air Corp, a Fokker D7 flown in World War One and a Model T and 1903 Cadillac.
In the display cases are artifacts that denote moments in aircraft evolution. From the early escapades of wing walking to pilot Eugene Pyle’s first take off from the USS Birmingham in 1910 in Curtis D model byplane, the stories that are told are awe inspiring.
On entering the experimental aircraft hanger, you will find every shape and size of airplane. These are mostly homemade crafts that are built from the ground up by their owners. The EAA planes fill every nook and cranny of the hanger. When an owner donates an aircraft to the museum, many times the craft lands at the nearby Birmingham airport and is simply brought by trailer to its new home.
Women in Aviation are featured in a display of photographs by Carolyn Russo depicting seventeen contemporary women pilots.
We were lucky enough to investigate the museum’s restoration shop where they are working on a T-21 unmanned drone used to take photos high res pictures of Soviet Union.
The craft was flown by the NRO, National Reconnaissance Office and the program ended in 1972. It was preprogrammed to fly and would ditch cameras and crash then a C130 was tasked to pick up the ditched cameras. Barsanti liken it to the wile e coyote school of reconnaissance flight. As well as restoring aircraft, the staff and volunteers build wind tunnels and display cases.
Back inside, we visited the SR-71 Blackbird exhibit. A static display of this magnificent craft is located two blocks from the museum along with many other planes. The custom made flight suits worn by the pilots are more akin to space suits due to the attitudes that the pilots flew. In 1990, Ed Yeilding, a pilot from Florence, Alabama made the last blackbird flight from Los Angeles to DC in sixty-seven minutes, fifty-four seconds flying at times two thousand miles an hour. At that speed, he said, it is hard to tell the separation of earth. Try that on Delta sometime.
Near the Blackbird exhibit are enormous handcrafted models of both the USS Birmingham and USS Enterprise are housed in large display cases. Both models were built from scratch in a volunteer’s garage and took eighteen months to complete.
To complete our tour, we reviewed the “CIA exhibit” housed in the main conference area of the museum. This exhibit features paintings of aircraft, mostly combat situations, and feature several planes that are on display at the museum. A brief written background about the scene accompanies each painting or artifact. The exhibit was recreated with the permission of the CIA. One interesting story happened during a tour of the exhibit when a gentleman remarked that he had something to donate regarding the Fall of Saigon. Turns out the visitor had been at the Embassy and had recovered an official seal from the Embassy.
The Southern Museum of Flight is a exceptional and exciting place to celebrate Alabama’s role in aviation history. The museum also houses the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame. The museum is just at the beginning its capital campaign to raise money the museum’s site transfer. Its new home will be on a new twenty-four acre site near the Barber Motorsports Museum which should open in 2020.