If you’re the proud owner of a Beechcraft, Cessna, Learjet, or vintage aircraft, flying to Wichita, Kansas, might feel like a homecoming. This city on the south-central Kansas plains has produced hundreds of thousands of general aviation airplanes since it first earned the nickname Air Capital of the World in the late 1920s.
In 1928, the city’s 16 aircraft manufacturers rolled 120 airplanes out of the factories each week. Though production has slowed, Kansas still is responsible for nearly 40 percent of GA aircraft produced worldwide. That doesn’t count other ways that Wichita touches the industry, such as engineering work at firms including Airbus Americas, research like that done at the National Institute for Aviation Research, or the hundreds of suppliers operating here.
Neither Textron Aviation nor Bombardier Learjet offers public tours, but you’ll find many ways to engage with the rich aviation heritage here.The city’s interactive science museum recently completed a new $2 million exhibit that transforms Wichita’s role as an aviation leader into an authentic experience for all ages. The Design Build Fly exhibit at Exploration Place is a behind-the-scenes, hands-on gallery packed with 50 interactive stations using authentic aircraft parts and assemblies procured from within miles of the downtown museum. Among the activities: Test landing gear, paint and stripe an exterior, take a turn as a production test pilot, or fly an unmanned aircraft system. There’s also a theater made from a 10-foot slice of a Boeing 737 fuselage where you can hear local aviation professionals give rare looks inside their production facilities and processes.
Wichita is also home to the B–29 Superfortress Doc, where a B–29 Hangar and Education Center is in progress to give this piece of flying history a permanent home. Stop by to see if tours are open and check the website for available dates for rides in the rare warbird.
The Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum is housed in the original 1892 city hall. You’ll learn about the impact of Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, and Lloyd Stearman on Wichita’s development, along with other influences on the city first settled in the 1860s. The city’s original Wichita Municipal Airport, near McConnell Air Force Base, is one of a dozen early air terminals remaining in the United States and is now home to the Kansas Aviation Museum. Climb up to the control tower; see more than 40 Kansas-built aircraft; explore exhibits; and discover the building’s art-deco details. Among the aircraft: a restored 1927 Laird Swallow, a 1965 Model 23 operated by Bill Lear for personal travel, a Boeing B–52D bomber with a wingspan of 185 feet, and the one-of-a-kind Beech Model 73 Jet Mentor, a prototype built to compete for a military trainer contract that was won by the Cessna T–37 Tweet, also on display.
When you’re ready for a break, there are a couple of fun aviation-related stops you can make. Have a Wingman Wheat or a Jet Set Brunette while sitting at a bar made from a Beech Model 18 wing at Aero Plains Brewing. The taproom is in the Historic Delano District, once part of the Chisholm Trail and home to several of the earliest airplane factories. Walk around the neighborhood to see a few historic displays among the eclectic boutiques and restaurants. Another fun spot for a drink or a meal is Stearman Field Bar & Grill, where you can dine 40 feet from the active runway. Stearman Field is about nine miles northeast of Wichita in Benton, Kansas, and is named for the open-cockpit biplanes built at the Boeing Wichita plant. Eight active Stearman aircraft are hangared here, including two beautifully restored 1943 Stearman PT–17s available to book for scenic flights through Stearman Sky Tours.
Must-see nonaviation attractions in Wichita include six near Exploration Place and part of the Museums on the River district. After you explore the aviation exhibit inside Exploration Place, take a few minutes to walk across the Arkansas River on the pedestrian bridge and explore Keeper of the Plains Plaza. Keeper of the Plains is an iconic 44-foot-tall sculpture, and it’s worth the return trip to come back and see the nightly lighting of the firepots.
The seventh-largest zoo in the country is Sedgwick County Zoo, and it houses one of the largest elephant exhibits in the United States. Pizza Hut Museum and outdoor products pioneer Coleman started in Wichita, and both have small and interesting museums.
Just a 50-minute drive from Wichita or a quick flight to Hutchinson, Kansas, takes you to two I-can’t-believe-this-is-here museums. The Cosmosphere International SciEd Center & Space Museum is a Smithsonian-affiliated space museum that has developed a close relationship with NASA through restoration projects. Kansas Underground Salt Museum Strataca takes you 650 feet below the earth’s surface to explore the only museum in the United States that is in an active salt mine.
Wichita is a bucket-list aviation destination, and with its central location and diverse attractions you can easily turn a trip here into a weeklong vacation with something to do for everyone.