By John Kanelis
The Texas Panhandle has a rich and long aviation history, the story of which a group of individuals is seeking to tell.
Amarillo was home for decades to an Air Force base that flew B-52 strategic bombers. The city was home to two men – Rick Husband and Paul Lockhart – who would fly aboard the space shuttle. Another Panhandle native, Alan Bean, walked on the moon as part of the Apollo 12 mission in 1969.
The Texas Air and Space Museum sits between two major elements of that history: the city's gleaming international airport and the massive Bell/Textron aircraft assembly operation that produces the V-22 tiltrotor Osprey and other aircraft.
Those who run the museum want to move it to a more suitable location and they are hoping to raise the funds to do so.
Fred Chesser, a retired Air Force master sergeant, is one of the many volunteers at the museum and he remains supremely optimistic about the museum's future.
"Our objective is to move into the old Attebury grain elevator complex," said Chesser. "We've had 20 acres deeded to us and we're in the process of breaking ground," he said, describing the proposed new site as being in "bad shape."
"We have a good plan," Chesser said, "but we need $1.6 million to bring it to fruition."
Chesser said the museum board recently received a $65,000 gift from Amarillo resident Dusty McGuire, the former head of Keep Amarillo Beautiful. "Her concern is that we should clean up the new site and make the new building presentable." He said "that's what the $65,000 is going to help pay for." Chesser said the donation was meant to "get us off dead center and to help us get started."
The current museum is in a structure run by English Field Aviation. Chesser said the museum has several aircraft on display, many artifacts and photos in a small display room next to the exhibit floor and "a lot of artifacts we don't have room to display now."
Chesser said the museum has some fascinating relics on display. They include:
- A DC-3, one of three such "movable structures" in the nation that's been listed on the Historical Register of Historic Places. He said the Federal Aviation Administration is loaning the aircraft to the museum.
- A G-2 training craft used by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which used the aircraft to train astronauts. The late Rick Husband, the Amarillo native who commanded the tragic shuttle Columbia mission that ended when the shuttle disintegrated on re-entry in February 2003, was one of the astronauts who trained on the G-2.
- A C-7 DeHavilland Caribou, an Army airplane that once was used to drop paratroopers.
- A Russian Yak 11 air racer.
- A home-made "Beer Cat" airplane built by a Panhandle aviator who named it the "Beer Cat" because of the copious amount of beer he consumed while building it. The official FAA registration is "Bearcat."
- A 1956 Piper Coup.
- A Korean War med-evac helicopter similar to the helicopters seen on the "M*A*S*H" TV series.
Plans also call for a T-34 trainer craft to arrive from Pampa, as well as a Cobra helicopter that's currently in Washington state, said Chesser.
"We are starting to renovate the first building at the new site," Chesser said, but he said the plan also calls for moving a 60-by-140-foot building from Pampa to the new location.
Even though the museum staff and board members are anxious to move to the Attebury elevator site, the current location does draw its share of attention from visitors, according to Chesser.
"We might get 50 visitors on some days, and maybe one or two on others," Chesser said.
"We get lots of school groups during the school year," he added, explaining that "we have to escort everyone through the museum because of security concerns on the flight line."
Admission to the museum is free, said Chesser, "but we do accept donations."
Chesser – who said he worked in logistics while serving 21 years in the Air Force – said that a lot of pilots who fly into Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport see the C-7 sitting outdoors and "they want to come over and look at it. They're also drawn to the NASA trainer." Chesser said, "We also get our share of 'airport bums,' folks who just can't tear themselves away from airports."
Chesser remains "very hopeful" that the museum will complete the move. He noted, "We started with nothing six years ago and now we have this." He praised museum board president Ron Fernuick's energetic leadership. "He flies commercially and buys and sells airplanes," Chesser said. "Most of our planes on display now are because of Ron's ability to beat the bushes."
The new museum site "definitely" will have a significant display dedicated to space flight and to NASA. "We'll devote a lot of space to Rick Husband. We're definitely planning on it." Chesser said he knew Husband well, noting that his father was a member of the Rotary East Club where Chesser is a member.
Yes, the museum faces potential drawbacks. One of them, Chesser said, is "manpower. A lot of the guys are in their 80s and 90s, or are in bad health."
He added that "working folks are limited in the time they can give."