Aeronautical museum hopes to attract travelers

Dave Rossetti

Scores of luggage-totting travelers scurry past its doorway and expansive windows in General Mitchell International Airport each day. Many of them, frazzled as they try to get from point A to point B, never even look up long enough to notice the 22-foot zeppelin imposing over its scale-model brethren as it hangs from its rafters.

But those who do give The Mitchell Gallery of Flight Air Museum a second glance and venture in will find it a worthwhile diversion of a type not typically found in airports of Mitchell's stature.

"It's pretty unique," said Sue Warner, the gallery's archivist. "There may be one airport, maybe two others that have (an air museum). It is kind of surprising that it's in an airport, though it is nice. A lot of our visitors are just passing through, though many people do come and make a special point just to see the museum."

Though not large — patrons can walk a lap around the museum in 20 seconds — the museum easily serves as a pleasant distraction for aviation buffs and anyone stuck in Milwaukee on a two-hour layover. Inside, visitors will find an interesting and a surprisingly comprehensive history of aviation and the development of the Milwaukee airport.

Warner said the museum aims to give visitors — of which she estimates 100,000 pass through its doors yearly — an idea of the major role Wisconsinites played in the development of aviation.

"We want them to understand the roll of Wisconsin, particularly southeast Wisconsin itself, in aviation history," she said. "We've had a lot of prominent local residents in that field. For instance, (General William) "Billy" Mitchell grew up in Milwaukee and he was the pioneer in aviation and one of the first people who saw how it was going to change our lives. James A. Lovell is an astronaut from the area. That kind of thing is what we're looking at — and to get people interested in aviation in general."

Special attention is paid to the man whose name adorns the airport, General William "Billy" Mitchell. A display case containing replicas of all of Mitchell's extensive military decorations sheds some light on why the World War I-era pilot made such a name for himself, but doesn't tell the whole story.

So, really then, why does Milwaukee make so much fuss over Mitchell?

During World War I, as its explained by two nearby display cases, Mitchell was the son of a Wisconsin senator who made a name for himself as he led Allied craft behind German lines. Though aerial warfare didn't really make its mark until World War II, Mitchell saw it as the wave of the future and wanted the U.S. Air Force to take the development of the idea seriously.

In 1925, upon seeing inadequate action on the Air Force's part, Mitchell accused the administration of neglecting its responsibility to the national defense. His resulting court martial is detailed in the exhibit though photos, text and Mitchell's own memorabilia — ceremonial second lieutenant's sword included.

One of the museum's most eye-catching displays consists of seven full-sized propellers from airplanes that crisscrossed the country in the earliest days of commercial aviation. The sleek blue paintjob of the 1927 Hamilton Metalplane stands out for its simple beauty, while the 1937 Maynard-Di Cesare's offset propellers – credited with increasing speed and reducing cockpit vibration — draw attention for their oddly futuristic appearance.

Other exhibits further highlight the rich aviation history of the southeast Wisconsin area. The accomplishments of Poplar resident Major Richard "Dick" Bong, who took down 40 Japanese warplanes during time in the Pacific to become the U.S. Air Force's "ace of aces" during World War II, are honored through sketches, news clippings and replicas of Bong's medals in one corner of the exhibit.

Not far from Sijan's place of honor are tributes to Milwaukee-born astronaut James A. Lovell, Jr., most famous for guiding the dilapidated Apollo 13 safely back to Earth. Down the same wall stands a small monument to "Lucky Lindy," first trans-Atlantic pilot Charles A. Lindbergh, and his triumphant visit to Milwaukee a few months after his historic 1927 trip.

Warner said the museum, staffed entirely by volunteers since it opened its doors in 1988, is working to update the museum by either modifying old exhibits or developing new ones.

"We change the museum all the time," Warner said. "It's regularly updated, but that depends on the availability of volunteers because we're a completely volunteer organization."

The Mitchell Gallery of Flight, 5300 S. Howell Ave, is located in open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. Admission is free. More information is available at www.mitchellgallery.org.

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