College Park Aviation Museum: Fulfilling My Need to Find Something Fun to Do in the City

While living in College Park these past few months, I’ve learned that there are plenty of places to eat, not enough places to shop, that public transit is the preferred mode of transportation, and that I have a good amount of resources to consider for news. Though my life is often swamped by school work and internship duties, during my free time, I haven’t learned about or done much else in the city. If I want to do something fun, my roommate and I usually make the trek from College Park to Downtown Washington, which can be exhausting. We (and I’m sure many of the other residents who live in College Park can attest to) would love to be able to do something adventurous and fun in our own city, other than get something to eat and grab a beer. I started becoming a bit antsy after a while because of this.

However, before I began bursting at the seems, I did some research and found that College Park has at least two historic locations that I was excited to learn about: the National Archives at College Park (Archives II) and the College Park Aviation Museum. To satiate my need, I was looking for something to explore that was exclusive to the city, which left me leaning towards visiting the aviation museum. So, I decided to stop by after interning one afternoon and I can honestly say that I wasn’t disappointed. The visit actually rejuvenated my excitement about living in the city once again.

Before my visit, I learned through research that the College Park Aviation Museum opened in 1998 and is a member of Smithsonian Affiliations. Located at 1985 Corporal Frank Scott Drive, it is connected to the historic College Park Airport, which is “the world’s oldest continually operated airport,” according to its official site.

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A wall of photographs and texts at the entrance of the museum explains the beginning of the Wright brothers’ success in the aviation industry. Photo by Pamela Seaton.

As soon as I stepped inside, I was taken back in time. I was instantly met with a large wall of photographs and texts documenting the Wright brothers first flight of a “heavier-than-air machine” in Kitty Hawk, NC, in 1903 to their aiding of the development of the College Park Airport, along with the help of the United States Army Signal Corps, in 1909. I was informed by the museum texts that at the airport, they taught three military government officials to fly in the government’s first airplane, the Signal Corps Number One. The Army Signal Corps Aviation School at College Park was opened in 1911, only to be closed two years later due to an opening at another location that permitted year-long flying; the harsh winters in College Park did not permit flight instruction at that time.

Behind the wall of photographs was an area that resembled the inside of a cabin or sleeping quarters. It showcased a model bed and trinkets of what would have been inside of a typical sleeping quarters for pilots and workers circa 1904, sparking within me a keen historic yet out-of-place and thrilling feeling (if that makes any sense).

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The “Wright brothers” stand next to a model of a 1910 Wright Model “B” Aeroplane. Photo by Pamela Seaton.

Once I walked out of there, I was met with a room full of airplanes, some of them hanging from the ceiling. Immediately to my right was a wax figure of Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, who taught at the aviation school and later became “#2 man in the [U.S.] War Department’s Aviation Division” during World War I, according to the museum text. His figurine was standing alongside a magnificent model of a 1910 Wright Model “B” Aeroplane, which was utilized for training purposes by the U.S. Army at the aviation school for two years.

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The back of the massive 1916 Curtiss Jenny (JN-4D). Photo by Pamela Seaton.

Immediately to the left of that was a 1916 Curtiss Jenny (JN-4D), which was one of the first airplanes to fly a postal air mail route. The air mail service was started by the U.S. War Department and the Post Office Department in Washington in May 1918 for a three month trial, during which the Jenny airplanes were utilized to carry mail on a daily basis. When the Post Office Department took over the mail service from the Army, it suggested that its own pilots start flying its own airplanes, which were originally six Standard JR-1B biplanes. They flew the original Washington/Philadelphia/New York route from College Park Airport starting in August 1918 and were later joined by pilots flying the Jenny airplanes. The Jenny’s earlier model, the JN-4, was used frequently in North America during World War I.

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Counterclockwise: The 1912 Blériot XI (top), the 1916 Curtiss Jenny (bottom) and the 1911 Curtiss Model “D” (far right). Photo by Pamela Seaton.

Immediately hanging above the Jenny was a model of the 1912 Blériot XI, which was flown by Louis Blériot, who made the first flight across the English Channel in a heavier-than-air machine. Hanging next to the 1912 Blériot XI was a model of the 1911 Curtiss Model “D,” which was used by the U.S. Army at Ft. Sam Houston until it was moved to the aviation school in College Park in 1911.

To the right of the Jenny was a large, black plane with huge propellers called the 1924 Berliner Helicopter, which was a result of vertical flight tests by father-and-son team Emile and Henry Berliner. On Feb. 23, 1924, it conducted the first controlled helicopter flight, which was flown at College Park Airport in front of U.S. Navy officials.

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The 1932 Monocoupe 110 hangs above the 1924 Berliner Helicopter. Photo by Pamela Seaton.

Hanging above the helicopter was a 1932 Monocoupe 110, a beautiful, red airplane that was often utilized for its speed and skill at air races at College Park Airport in the 1930s, and a 1936 Taylor J-2 “Cub,” which was utilized for flight instruction at the College Park Airport for decades and was overwhelming sought after by ordinary citizens wishing to learn how to fly.

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The 1941 Boeing Model 75 (front) hangs alongside the 1936 Taylor J-2 “Cub” (middle) and the 1932 Monocoupe 110 (back) at the museum. Photo by Pamela Seaton.

Hanging to the left of the “Cub” was a 1941 Boeing Model 75, otherwise known as “Stearman.” These airplanes were utilized in World War II as two-seated biplanes, barnstormers and crop dusters and were also flown at the College Park Airport at air races and stunt shows for decades. This particular Stearman was used by pilot and author Gus McLeod during the first open-cockpit flight over the North Pole in April 2000.

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A sign inviting visitors to sit in the 1939 Taylorcraft stands in front of the airplane. It was donated to the museum in 1997 and retrofitted by the museum’s restoration shop for the display. Photo by Pamela Seaton.

In the far back of the museum lied a 1939 Taylorcraft, currently serving as the “Imagination Plane” of the museum. Visitors are invited to step into the airplane, sit in its cockpit, and play with the controls, which I, of course, did. I was able to operate one of the controls and move the rudder, which excited me, but I was scared that I would break a piece of this historic airplane, so I didn’t play with it for too long. It was a two-seat, high-wing airplane that was typically used by land and sea and was popular amongst citizens until World War II. At that time, the company that produced them, Taylorcraft Aviation Corporation, started solely making airplanes for the U.S. Army Air Corps. Under many owners and different names in its history, the company began reselling airplanes to citizens after the war.

Lastly, hanging above the Taylorcraft was a 1946 Ercoupe, which was a product of the Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO) and was made to be “spin-proof, stall-proof, and slip-proof.” With simple controls, it was meant to be “anybody’s plane.”

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A U.S. map in one of the smaller exhibits at the museum pinpoints some of the first stops of the Postal Air Mail Service that began in 1918 and utilized airplanes such as the 1916 Curtiss Jenny. Photo by Pamela Seaton.

After running back and forth through the airplanes and reading their descriptions, I noticed some of the large photographs of historic events in aviation history plastered on the walls of the museum, including one of the Goodyear Blimp, which was often used in air races at the College Park Airport in the 1930s. There were also smaller rooms that focused on other important moments and people of aviation history, including one Bernetta Miller, who became the fifth licensed woman pilot in the United States in 1912, and one that went into much more detail about the Postal Air Mail Service. The upstairs level featured a few photographs of other airplanes, engines and people significant to American aviation history.

All in all, though it is a small museum, I was highly pleased with it. I learned a great deal of history in a short amount of time and I really enjoyed seeing the actual airplanes (whether they were models or not) from historic times. It opened my eyes to a world I’ve only heard about in books and it made me feel like a kid again; it made me want to investigate and see how things worked. I’ve never been much of a fan of history or aviation, but this museum sparked an interest in both subjects for me. It also made me excited, knowing that this museum was practically in my backyard and that I can bring friends and family here and show them that there’s more to the city than just the university and restaurants; it’s actually historic and worth the trip. Plus, with cheap admission prices–$4 for adults, $3 for seniors, and $2 for children–cost should not hold many people back from attending the museum. Saving a trip to Starbucks in the morning will certainly afford them the trip.

For those reasons, I would recommend this museum to anyone, especially University of Maryland students, new residents and tourists. This may be a hidden gem that they wouldn’t know about unless they stumbled upon it and I am here to encourage the stumbling.

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