When local airport officials voted to close Smith Field in 2002, supporters tried to thwart demolition by having it declared a local historic district — a designation eventually overturned by City Council. But the pressure helped persuade the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority to change its mind a year later anyway, preserving the city's first airport along with its nearly 100 years of rich and unique history.
If Bob Wearley gets his way, and can find a mere $2.5 million or so, that heritage and much more will soon be on display in a museum dedicated to Fort Wayne's aviation pioneers and others from the obscure to the famous who risked and often lost their lives in rickety canvas-and-wood biplanes to advance humanity's understanding and acceptance of and technology that was still not far removed from the Wright Brothers.
"If that hangar could talk. These were the golden years of aviation, and it would be a shame to let it fade and not preserve history. Too often this community lets things die on the vine," Wearley told Airport Authority members this week as he and representatives of the New York-based Tessellate Studio unveiled plans for a National Airmail Museum in the vacant main hangar that dates back to the 1925 founding of what originally was known as Baer Municipal Airport. The vision is still a long shot, to be sure, but then so was the chance of Smith Field's survival. And with businessmen and aviation enthusiasts such as auto dealer Tom Kelley and Sweetwater Sound founder Chuck Surack offering moral and perhaps eventually financial support, Wearley's proposal is not just pie in the sky.
The regularly scheduled airmail service in the United States was on May 15, 1918, between Washington, D.C., and New York City, with a stop in Philadelphia along the way. Charles Lindbergh, who in 1927 became the first pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean non-stop, also flew the mail. He and such well-known peers as World War I ace of aces Eddie Rickenbacker, Howard Hughes (for whom Wearley once worked) would be featured, but so would local legends such as Paul Baer, America's first WWI ace, and barnstormer Art "Bird Boy" Smith. When a new airport was built south of town before World War II, it was named for Baer — and the city's original airport was named for Smith.
Such legends represent compelling stories, and Tessellate Principal Emily Conrad wants to tell them in a way that "captures the feel of the times." "We don't want anything too 'precious,' " agreed Principal Joe Karadin. "We want people to feel as though (the museum) was built by the pioneers." Instead of high-tech exhibits, many of the displays will be made of wood and other materials used to build early airplanes — a cost-saving measure as well as historically accurate. To keep things fresh, historic aircraft may be rebuilt on-site. Smith Field's former terminal could be turned into an aviation-themed cafe, and George Smyrniotis, owner of the Liberty Diner, has expressed interest in running it.
One of the next steps will be to determine the museum's likely operating income and expenses. It would also need as many as 50 paid or volunteer staff members, but the support of such organizations as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Vintage Aircraft Association and the Experimental Aircraft Association should help provide the needed manpower. A group called "The Friends of Smith Field" has been formed and will seek not-to-profit status to pursue the necessary funding, said Wearley, an Air Force veteran and former Airport Authority member. Karadin said Fort Wayne's location enhances the feasibility of the project, being relatively close to other aviation-themed attractions, including the Air Force Museum in Dayton. But the Smith Field museum would be unique, he promised.
There already is a small aviation museum at Fort Wayne International Airport, formerly known as Baer Field, and it is uncertain how much of that collection, if any, would be incorporated into the Smith Field displays.
Is such an ambitious proposal realistic? That's a good question. But there is no question about this: Once slated for oblivion, Smith Field is inspiring dreams again. Surack's Sweet Aviation, which occupies the 10,000-square-foot, $1.75 million facility the authority built for Ivy Tech in 2006, has recently expanded. Ivy Tech has a new building, and the Airport Authority plans to spend about $850,000 on new hangars. For Smith Field's future, the sky's the limit.
But it would all be impossible without a past that, one way or another, is worth remembering.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at email@example.com or call him at 461-8355.