Southern Museum of Flight

Southern Museum of Flight The Southern Museum of Flight, located in Birmingham, is the Southeast’s largest civilian aviation museum. It houses collections that include military, commercial, and experimental aircraft, memorabilia, and other artifacts. The museum began with the aviation-related artifacts and memorabilia acquired by early Alabama aviator Mary Alice Beatty in the 1960s. In 1965, the Birmingham Aero Club officially established the Birmingham Air and Space Museum and installed the first exhibits in Samford University‘s library. The collections were moved in 1967 to the terminal at the Birmingham Airport, and two years later, the installations were renamed the Southern Museum of Flight. In 1976, the Aero Club bought land in East Lake, close to the airport, for a new facility, and construction began in 1978. Two wings of the proposed four opened in 1983, and soon thereafter the collections and facility were donated to the city of Birmingham in exchange for an operating budget. The exhibit halls are called “hangars,” and the museum also houses the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame, the Flying Heritage Gallery, a model gallery, and a hands-on gallery for families.

The museum’s collections celebrate some of the earliest events of aviation history in the South. One exhibit chronicles the brief life of the Wright Brothers Flying School, located at what is now Maxwell Field outside Montgomery and the first flight school in the United States. A full-sized replica of their plane, the Wright Flyer, floats above a display that features a large photograph made from the original negative, a piece of fabric from the Wright’s plane, a note from Orville’s niece (who flew with him), and a night light from the landing field in Montgomery.

Southern Museum of Flight Education Program Through World War II, Birmingham was the center of Deep South aviation. Displays record early air shows held at the Alabama State Fairgrounds from 1912 to 1924. Specific exhibits focus on local World War I flying aces Jimmy Meissner and William Badham, the formation flying squadron of the Alabama National Guard, and “wing walker” Glenn Messer, who donated his personal memorabilia, including the mouthpiece he used while hanging from a plane by his teeth, to the museum. Photo galleries detail the annual National Air Carnivals, which drew hundreds of thousands of people.

Located on the second floor of the museum is the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame, where plaques honor the accomplishments of Alabama’s pioneers of aviation. They include inventors, teachers, corporate executives, and warriors. A second gallery houses the U.S. Air Force Art Collection, assembled for the 50th anniversary of the Air Force. A large four-panel mural depicts the history of military and commercial aviation; it was painted by a former Russian MIG 21 pilot. All of the museum’s galleries have wall displays and exhibits that provide information about general aviation, women in aviation, and other topics.

Southern Museum of Flight General Aviation Hangar For mechanics enthusiasts, the General Aviation Hangar offers displays of 40 aircraft engines, including a cutaway model that runs at the flip of a switch. The gallery also houses the Mississippi State Marvel, an experimental aircraft, and other home-built aircraft. The Model Gallery displays a number of scale models of various types of aircraft and dioramas as well as an 11-foot replica of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, complete with aircraft. Among the museum’s most impressive holdings are examples of some early airplanes, including an Alexander Eaglerock once owned by the first deaf pilot (Nellie Willhite), a Huff Daland crop duster, and a Fokker D-VII used in the 1966 film The Blue Max.

Southern Museum of Flight Model Gallery In 2000, the museum received an A-12 Blackbird from the Lockheed “Skunk Works,” the alias for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Program. It was the first installation in what would become the museum’s outdoor exhibit area, located at the Birmingham International Airport, two blocks from the main building of the Southern Museum of Flight. During the next few years, the area grew to include a number of other planes, including a Blackbird, an F-111 Aardvark, a TF-102 Delta Dagger, a T-37 Tweety Bird, a MiG-21, S-2 Tracker, an F-104 Starfighter, a Skycrane helicopter, and an L-39 Eastern Bloc jet trainer. In total, the museum now owns more than 90 aircraft. The new hangar centers on an expanded Tuskegee Airmen exhibit built around aircraft used in the World War II training program at Tuskegee. This area also includes a Korean War exhibit centered on the F-86 Sabre jet fighter.

Additional Resources

Dodd, Don. “Birmingham Aviation: From Fairgrounds Airshows to the Southern Museum of Flight.” Alabama Review 57 (January 2004): 44-61.

Dodd, Don, and Amy Dodd. Deep South Aviation. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 1999.

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