Even those of us who are fascinated with the miracle of flight often let the history of our passion slip away. The flow of airliners has become so commonplace that we forget the early days of droning propellers and service on china. Fortunately, an effort started some 25 years ago to keep our fading airline history alive.
Tucked away in a stately one-time airline maintenance hangar at Kansas City, Mo.'s historic downtown airport, the Airline History Museum seeks to preserve some of our vanishing past. Largely a project of retired Trans World Airlines employees, whose airplanes once spanned the globe from this very field, the Airline History Museum is more than a dusty collection of travel posters. Its centerpiece is the "Star of America," a curvaceous Lockheed Constellation, saved from the smelter by generous benefactors and a lot of sweat equity to make it flyable. Accompanied by a DC-3, a Martin 404, and a recently-acquired Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, the old Connie presides over the cavernous museum building with queenly grace.
Tourists wandering through several display-filled rooms can trace the origins of the U.S. airline development. Timetables, brochures, early ground-support equipment, and uniforms are exhibited, beginning with the transcontinental plane-train route pioneered by Transcontinental Air Transport, TWA's predecessor, a 1929 effort combining Ford Trimotors with sleeper railcars to span the country in 48 hours. Early tragedies, like the Knute Rockne crash in a wood-and-fabric Fokker Trimotor, are recognized as the price of progress, and vintage radio and lighting equipment is shown.
While the walk-through of the display rooms is self-guided, the main hangar can only be viewed in an escorted tour because of the hazards posed by ongoing restorations. The Airline History Museum's DC-3 is an extremely authentic early-1940s renovation, with a "Buy War Bonds" slogan emblazoned on its side, complete with period seating and airline appointments. The old Douglas actually was a TWA airliner in its early years, rather than a refitted C-47 troop carrier. The adjacent Martin 404, an early 1950s Eastern Airlines pressurized feederliner, used the legendary R-2800 Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp engines and more than doubled the DC-3's capacity, servicing small cities with self-contained boarding stairs under the tail.
The Airline History Museum’s Super Constellation represents the epitome of piston airliners, when luxury air travel across oceans and continents required dressing for the occasion. Delivered in 1959 as an L-1049H convertible cargo aircraft, the restored Connie has been outfitted as an L-1049G to show the lounge seating, optional berths, and galley equipment of the pre-jet era. The flight deck is complete, featuring the flight engineer's complex station, the navigator's desk and sextant port, and the Super Constellation's compact cockpit. The Wright R-3350 turbo-compound engines were a marvel of reciprocating power; a cutaway training engine shows the power-recovery turbines and massive cylinders, once capable of generating 3,400 horsepower when 115/145 octane gasoline was available.
Proudly standing against one wall is a futuristic 35-foot TWA Moonliner rocket that once graced TWA's downtown Kansas City headquarters building, similar to a rocket in a late-1950s Disneyland exhibit that pointed the way to popular space travel. And tucked under the Constellation is a tiny 1930 American Eaglet, a two-seat "flivver" built in Kansas City for Depression-era flying.
The Airline History Museum's most recent acquisition is the Lockheed L-1011-100 parked on the ramp outside, perhaps the best widebody jetliner of its day. The L-1011's three huge turbofans carried it to international destinations while the passengers strolled in twin-aisle spaciousness. The TriStar's crew loved its autoland capability and redundant systems, insisting that it was built far better than competing designs.
The Airline History Museum is open six days a week, except for holidays, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (allow ample time for touring if arriving late). Because occasional special events may require an early closing time, a confirmation phone call is advised.
The museum, located at 201 Northwest Lou Holland Drive, Kansas City, Mo., can be reached by taking the Broadway Avenue bridge across the Missouri River from Kansas City's downtown district. If flying in, ask to park at Hangar 9, on the southwest corner of Charles B. Wheeler Downtown airport, where the L-10ll is clearly visible. The entrance fee is a nominal $8, with student and senior discounts, and special considerations for groups.