Bob Oehl says it’s hard to describe in a talk or a lecture the quantity and quality of aerospace artifacts a small group of volunteers has gathered at a small airport in Keystone Heights, Florida.
But onlookers grasp the idea when they see the collection.
“People come here and put their eyes on it. They’re just stunned,” he said.
And there’s more history coming, Oehl said.
About 53 miles away, in Green Cove Springs, sits a positively enormous nod to NASA nostalgia: a 154-foot-long full-scale model of a space shuttle external fuel tank, used for testing during the space program, and later displayed at the Kennedy Space Center before beginning a slow, logistically challenging march north toward a new home in 2013.
The space shuttle simulator, too, was demanding in paperwork and logistics, not to mention cost, to deliver it to the Wings of Dreams Aviation Museum, a work 11 years in progress at the Keystone Airpark in northeast Florida. Oehl is the museum’s co-founder and executive director.
There the simulator shares headliner status with such NASA relics as an astronaut crew transport vehicle, an oxygen mask from Skylab, and numerous souvenirs of space flight that would have been destroyed had Oehl not arranged to save them in response to “an edict” from NASA: “If you don’t come and get this, it’s gone,” he recalled.
Finding a home for such treasures began in 2005. Oehl and Susan King founded the Wings of Dreams charitable organization at Keystone Airpark, formerly Keystone Army Airfield, on their mission to establish and operate a museum, aerospace education center, warbird restoration facility, and observatory.
Wings of Dreams also has accumulated an aircraft collection that includes a Douglas C-47 Skytrain that was in Europe on D-Day, a Piper Grasshopper (a J-3 Cub in military applications), a rare O2-B (Cessna Skymaster), and a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, Oehl said.
Wings of Dreams hosts aviation events, fly-ins, and education gatherings—such as a recent evening of astronomy billed as a star party—as it moves toward its goal of constructing a permanent facility on 7.9 acres of land leased at the airport.
Arriving at this stage appears to mark the point at which the small group of volunteers, and the donated efforts of other supporters such as a trucking company that transported the simulator, can no longer move the project forward without aid.
“We’re ready for concrete and steel, and we need help,” Oehl said in a phone interview.
Oehl is a 25,500-hour pilot with airline, military, law enforcement, forestry, and corporate piloting experience. He has run the Express Air Flight School at Keystone Airpark for more than 30 years. If you need instruction in a North American B-25 Mitchell, he’s your man, having flown and instructed in the aircraft for the Collings Foundation. The World War II bomber is one of more than 200 kinds of airplane, helicopter, and gliders he has flown after getting his start in general aviation, according to his biography on his flight school’s website.
Oehl was a known man at NASA long before the first truckload of artifacts was sent his way by the space agency. His father, Don Oehl, represented Grumman at NASA for the lunar module program, and famously helped rescue the Apollo 13 astronauts in April 1970 after an oxygen tank exploded. Oehl grew up around the space program and its participants; some were his neighbors, he recalls.
“Dad was one of the guys who saved Apollo 13. I was a geek at NASA when I was a kid,” Oehl said.
Honoring the many unsung heroes of aviation and “the patriotic service of all veterans” is his present-day objective, and he hopes that establishing Wings of Dreams will inspire future generations by building them a hands-on bridge to the past glory he has witnessed firsthand. He believes that what the museum’s advocates have accomplished so far captures the same can-do spirit that breached space and sent men to the moon.
“We’ve done all of this with no sponsor and six volunteers. It’s a great American story about how the little guy can do it. This is the grass roots,” he said.