By LYNN LOFTON
A long held dream for an aviation museum is taking shape on Pass Road in Gulfport with plans to open phase one this spring. The Mississippi Aviation Heritage Museum is under the auspices of the Brown Condor Association which honors the legacy of barrier-breaking pilot John C. Robinson.
Housed in a former furniture store owned by the city, the museum has 55,000 square feet at its disposal with 14,000 square feet to be utilized in the first phase. All work is being done by volunteers with donated materials and artifacts.
This new attraction promises to be interesting to people of all ages and will have interactive exhibits. “It will be historical and a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) museum,” says Francisco Gonzalez of the Brown Condor Association. “There will be a lot of learning to be had here, and especially a lot for kids to do.”
Think flight simulators with pilot seats, control tower computers to simulate take offs and landings, sitting in the cockpit of a Hurricane Hunters plane, the huge outer ring of a turbine that visitors can stand in for photos, a movie room that has seats from a plane and an attendant’s station, and much more. Gonzalez is meeting with area high schools to explore cooperative programs between schools and the museum.
Phil Harding, president of the Military Officers Association, was persuaded to get involved and has high praise for the museum and community. “It’s a work in progress that will continue to grow,” he said. “Everything has been donated — labor, supplies, materials, artifacts. The spirit of the community is outstanding and will make this museum a success.”
Gonzalez says many individuals and companies have been instrumental in making the museum a reality and all will be named when the facility opens. “We are seeking funds from the Mississippi Legislature to complete phase two,” he said. “That phase will include an elevator to the second floor where visitors can sit on an observation deck and enjoy a beer and watch planes leaving and landing from the nearby airport.”
Gonzalez and Harding are keen on the museum’s tall front windows and proximity to the Gulfport-Biloxi Airport where planes can be seen leaving and approaching. Donated small planes will be hung from the museum’s ceiling along with huge plane photos that were transferred to fabric. A stripped down airplane frame will show how planes are made.
Visitors will enter and buy tickets at a 1970s American Airlines ticket counter and then proceed down what looks like a runway. A tribute to Robinson, the Gulfport native who was the first African-American pilot to fight in a foreign country, is near the entrance.
Other points of interest include the Mississippi Aviation Hall of Fame, the Tuskegee Airmen story, and exhibits honoring WW II and all branches of the military. The Tuskegee Airmen’s Gulf Coast Chapter recently met at the museum and made a donation. Exhibits will include homages to Apollo astronauts Biloxi native Fred Haise and Stuart Roosa, father of Gonzalez’s wife Rosemary Roosa; shuttle astronauts Donald Peterson and Richard Truly; and aviation heroes and daredevils the Key Brothers of Meridian, Roscoe Turner and Jesse Brown.
John C. Robinson (1905-1954) was born in Florida and spent his early years in Gulfport. As an aviator and activist he was hailed as the Brown Condor for his service in the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force against Fascist Italy. He later opened an aviation school and developed a program for Black pilots at his college, the Tuskegee Institute. He is known as the father of the Tuskegee Airmen who served in World War II.
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