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Ellington work to start soon for flight museum

After spending 30 years in Galveston, the Lone Star Flight Museum is preparing to land at a new site – Houston’s Ellington Airport.

The nonprofit broke ground in November on the site for its new headquarters, and crews are expected to pour the foundation of the building soon.

The $35 million project will take about a year to complete, said Larry Gregory, the museum’s president and chief operating officer.
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“We worked out a lease with Ellington,” Gregory said. “There we will have aircraft display space, and we’ll also have a tremendous amount of room dedicated to educational programming.”

Exhibits are planned to cover the history of aviation in Texas and to provide hands-on demonstrations of the science behind flight.

The new space will total 130,000 square feet, which is 30,000 feet more than the existing museum at 2002 Terminal Drive in Galveston. It will house more than 40 historically significant aircraft such as B-17 and B-25 bombers from World War II.

“We’re really looking forward to this opportunity to re-envision the museum,” Gregory said. “It’s an opportunity to expand our outreach, too. We’re giving kids a chance to learn about (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects, and we’re using airplanes as a tool.

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It gives them something they can see and touch.”

The new museum will feature a $1 million Aviation Learning Center, a replica of one developed at the Seattle Museum of Flight.

The museum hopes to create educational partnerships with area school districts, the military and NASA.

The center’s educational programs will be aligned with Texas academic standards and will focus on aircraft aerodynamics and design, climate science as it affects aviation, the air traffic control system and aircraft maintenance.

The facility will also house an archive and research facility, a restaurant, gift shop and a 400-seat auditorium for programs, conferences, public meetings and other events.

Funds are still being raised for the new facility, and the group welcomes donations. FEMA is funding $7.6 million of the project through hurricane restoration funds.

“When we move to Ellington, we’ll need to expand our volunteer program as well,” Gregory said. “We’ll be looking for folks who are willing to help.”

Ellington is the site for the Wings Over Houston show that draws 100,000 visitors each year, and museum officials note that it will be visible from Beltway 8.

Love of vintage aircraft

The museum began as a private collection assembled by local businessman Robert Waltrip.

“He was just enamored with airplanes as a little boy,” Gregory said.

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“It was something he always enjoyed.”

Over time, the number of historic aircraft Waltrip garnered required more and more space, and he realized that the sight of the planes together was worth sharing with the public.

He obtained nonprofit status in 1987 and started looking for a home to establish a museum in 1990.

“Galveston welcomed us with open arms,” Gregory said. “But before the first hangar was even finished, we realized it wasn’t big enough to hold all the airplanes.”

By 1991, there were two hangars housing the collection. A few years later, the museum became the site of the official Texas Aviation Hall of Fame.

Gregory said that the museum launched a capital campaign to build an exhibition space to honor all of its inductees, a prominent group, which include President George H. W. Bush, Howard Hughes, Bessie Coleman and Debbie Rihn Harvey, World War II aviators like Lloyd Bentsen, Ben Love and John Bookout, the Doolittle Raiders, the Tuskegee Airmen, the Women Air Service Pilots and astronauts Alan Bean and Gene Cernan.

The Hall of Fame addition, which opened in the late 1990s, also included space for educational programs and a meeting room.

“We recognized that we needed extra space to do more educational programs,” Gregory said.

In the early 2000s, the museum began a flight experience program, which gives guests the opportunity to fly in one of the planes for a fee ranging between $250 and $450.

“We’ve flown with thousands of people, and it’s been a lot of fun,” Gregory said. “It’s a great way to personalize the museum experience.”

Ike’s impact

Everything was smooth sailing at the museum until Hurricane Ike hit in 2008.

“It pretty well flushed us out,” Gregory said.

The storm resulted in $20 million of damage – a blow from which the facility is still recovering.

“It’s been a several year process, and we’re not done yet,” Gregory said. “We decided it would be a good idea to investigate other locations. Ike was just so devastating.”

Plans were put in place to move the museum to safer ground.

Charles Szalkowski, vice president of the museum’s board of directors, started as a volunteer and became passionate about the nonprofit’s programs.

“It helps bring history alive to new generations,” he said. “For children, it builds respect for the grandparents and those, who over the years, have contributed to our country and preserved our way of living by being members of the military.”

Szalkowski said that the older model airplanes are ideal tools for teaching science and engineering.

“You can understand them mechanically,” he said. “And the museum has a mission to educate children about science and technology. We can pass along the romance of flight to them and hopefully inspire them to study a little harder.”

Szalkowski is confident that the new space will become a major attraction.

“With a little patience and luck, people will be coming to Houston because they’ve heard this is a place to see some interesting stuff,” he said.

The new location will give the museum space to bounce back from the hurricane, Szalkowski said.

“We lost so much,” he said. “The museum is still not what it was before the storm. But we’re going to get back – and we’ll be a little different.

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