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History of the Virginia Aviation Museum
The roots of the Virginia Aviation Museum go back to the mid-1970s, when Sidney L. Shannon, Jr., founded the Shannon Air Museum at the Shannon Airport in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Mr. Shannon had acquired twelve beautifully restored aircraft spanning the Golden Age of Aviation and created a modestly sized, privately owned flying museum. Upon his death in June of 1981, his will required the aircraft and artifacts remain together in Central Virginia. Cary Gresham, a trust officer overseeing Shannon’s estate, approached Ray Tyson, a Board member of the Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society (VAHS), and proposed that the Society take the Shannon collection. This would require the Society to find a suitable location in Central Virginia and build a museum to house the collection.
The VAHS Board of Directors decided to take up Mr. Gresham’s challenge and approached the Richmond International Airport for land on which to build an aviation museum. Once the issue of a location had been resolved, the Society formally agreed to accept the Shannon aviation collection and the trust officer set a December 1986 completion date.
A 30-year lease for 5.094 acres of land was approved by the Capitol Region Airport Commission on January 1, 1985. Society member Carl Lindner volunteered as the Project Architect, William “Bill” Kayhoe became the contractor, and Neil November headed up the fundraising team. After reviewing the architectural plans, the team decided $400,000 would be needed to complete the project. Led by Mr. November, the fund raising effort netted $480,000 for the project.
The official groundbreaking ceremony was held on November 11, 1985, when the first shovels of dirt were “removed” for the construction of the new Aviation Museum by members of the Society’s Board of Directors and other dignitaries, including then Virginia Governor Gerald L. Baliles. Over the next twelve months, a modest 20,000 sq. ft. prefabricated steel building was built and outfitted with exhibit spaces, reception area, offices, and storage spaces. Next, a plan was developed to disassemble and transport the Shannon aircraft to their new home. On December 21, 1986, the dream to have an aviation museum at the Richmond International Airport was finally realized when the first aircraft from the Shannon collection arrived at the newly competed Virginia Aviation Museum. Lennie Ellis headed the team that setup the aircraft in the museum after they arrived.
The new Virginia Aviation Museum opened its doors in January 1987 and hosted an official opening ceremony on September 6, 1987. Over time, major features added to the Museum included the Benn Theater, Neil November Observation Deck, World War II exhibit and the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame exhibit. Due to the generosity of Martha West in 1991, a fifty-foot extension to the main exhibit hall along with an office and storage rooms for the VAHS and a shop for the Museum at the back of the building were added, bringing the footprint of the Museum to 30,000 square feet.
After operating the Virginia Aviation Museum for several years, the Society’s Directors decided to donate the Museum and its entire collection to the Commonwealth of Virginia. A deal was struck to transfer ownership of the Virginia Aviation Museum and all its artifacts and exhibits, as well as the property lease with the Capitol Region Airport Commission, to the Science Museum of Virginia. The agreement was signed on June 23, 1990. On July 1, 1990 the Virginia Aviation Museum became the first division of the Science Museum of Virginia.
Over the ensuing years, more historic aircraft and artifacts have been added to the collection. Notable additions include an SR-71 Blackbird, F-14D Tomcat, and a complete reproductions collection of Wright Brothers gliders and a 1903 Flyer. New interactive exhibits have been added that include a presentation on the Forces of Flight, a Piper J-3 Cub you can “pilot,” fixed- and motion-based simulators, a kids’ aviation-themed play area, and aviation art exhibits. Education offerings include pre-school through 12th grade, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, adult, and seniors programs. The Virginia Aviation Museum has evolved into a rich treasure trove for anyone who wants to learn more about aviation history and resulting advances in engineering technology.