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author My Turn

Burl Burlingame

Sunday, October 5, 2003


Our aviation history
may be gone with the wind


It's impossible to escape the irony. In this centennial year of the advent of powered flight, with big commemorations planned around the world, Hawaii's government has been busy this past week demolishing the state's primary aerospace museum.

Double irony: More than any other state, Hawaii is completely dependent on aviation. Hawaii's aerospace history is part of our shared heritage, and an integral part of our future.

That was recognized in the 1960s when business leaders called for the creation of an aerospace museum. Eventually the torch was taken up by businessmen-aviators such as Edward Swofford and Frank Der Yuen.

State officials insisted that the museum be located at Honolulu International Airport. By the time the museum board hired consultant Jim Nikkel to direct design and construction, the museum already had been built once and torn down.

Nikkel insisted the museum be educational in purpose and world-class in design. It was. Designed by Chuck Maisel, the exhibits earned praise for cutting-edge technology and student-friendly learning curves.

I got involved about this time, building some of the exhibits, and my knowledge of aviation history earned me a spot on the volunteer staff as historian and curator for more than a decade.

It was a gas. Our aviation history is so rich that you never run out of stories to tell -- the amazing PN-9 flight from California, the links between ancient Polynesian voyaging and modern navigation, the pioneering of Pan American Airways, the legend of Maui, Amelia Earhart, the tragic Dole Derby, the mapping of the islands by the 11th Photo Section, Ellison Onizuka, the critical role Hawaii played in early space exploration -- and, of course, World War II. Hawaii's aero-space heritage is cool stuff.

The only problem was the landlord. Hawaii's government has never understood the role of museums in education, and the Department of Transportation often seemed to be doing its best to scuttle the museum.

There are many bizarre instances to recount -- such as when the DOT tried to charge the museum about $20,000 a month for electricity, a figure picked out of the air, or the time the DOT forbade the museum from depicting Japanese military aircraft, on the grounds that Japanese visitors might freak out and riot. (They didn't.)

Another example: The museum has engines restored by the Hawaii Air National Guard. We wanted to display one in front of the museum. No way, said DOT reps, it might fall through the floor and collapse the building. They demanded we hire an engineer of their choice to determine the load-bearing capacity of the concourse floor. State engineers are ignorant of the airport's floor strength? I called the company that did the original concrete pour and confirmed the strength was well within safety limits. They then said rude things about DOT bureaucrats.

Months later, DOT engineers called for placing a sheet of plywood under the engine to distribute the load and then billed the museum for "services."

All this difficulty was inherited by new director Donn Parent when Nikkel retired. Facing bankruptcy -- DOT insisted that the museum neither charge admission nor have a gift shop -- the museum was saved by Parent's patient negotiations.

DOT retaliated by having fire marshals declare the museum's historic archives a fire hazard. All that paper in the reference books might combust!

For me, the last straw came when DOT workers grabbed an irreplaceable aircraft engine, clearly marked and placed "safely" in the museum's storage area ... and threw it away. It is gone forever. My reaction was to try to charge the DOT with theft and malicious destruction of property, but Parent said that being punitive would make DOT even harder to get along with. He was right, of course, but I walked.

The museum shut its doors two years ago after the events of 9/11 turned airports into super-security zones. Demolition started this week on the museum exhibit areas, and as much stuff as possible was saved to be reused in the planned Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor at Ford Island. Still, a center that educated nearly a million visitors, students and residents over its lifespan, and did so with style and fun, has ceased to exist.

And a triple irony: Parent tells me that the current administration at the airport is the friendliest ever. Too late.


Burl Burlingame is a Star-Bulletin writer. My Turn is a periodic column written by Star-Bulletin employees.

My Turn is a periodic column written by
Star-Bulletin staff members expressing
their personal views.

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