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Aviation exhibit taking flight at Virginia museum

Friday - 11/16/2012, 8:43am  ET

The Roanoke Times.

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) - The Virginia Museum of Transportation steps into the future Saturday with the opening of its new aviation gallery.

Though it might be more accurate to say that the museum has finally caught up to the present.

"We're going from the 18th to the 21st century just like that," quipped Fran Ferguson, the museum's director of development.

The renovated gallery is the culmination of a comeback that began six years ago, when a storm tore the roof off the building over the previous aviation exhibit, which then was basically just a collection of artifacts that made no effort to provide any larger context.

The new gallery, "Wings Over Virginia," focuses on the national and regional history of flight and features hands-on activities and computer touch screens.

It's a concrete example of how the museum has stabilized financially and responded to feedback since 2006.

Executive director Bev Fitzpatrick said the gallery opening marks the staff's first opportunity "to show an inkling of where we want go."

"Wings Over Virginia" opens with flight as it was imagined by the Greeks and Native Americans, as well as Leonardo da Vinci's flying machine designs, then introduces how the Wright Brothers discovered that altering the shape of the wings would control a plane's direction.

The concept of flight's origin in myth is relevant to the gallery because "these are people stories," said deputy director Don Moser, who oversaw the gallery's creation.

Beyond the origin stories at the entrance, the gallery guides visitors in a zigzag path through the history of aviation, its development as an industry and activity in Virginia, including sections about Roanoke and Southwest Virginia.

The hands-on activities include a station that has model planes with exchangeable parts and one that lets users see different kinds of runway running lights with flicks of a switch. These stations were made by 4DD Studios, a Roanoke fabricator that creates large-scale objects for businesses and museums.

The museum used artists and companies based in the region whenever possible. "About 90 percent of the gallery involved local business, artists, writers and art directors," said marketing director Peg McGuire.

There are also display cases for model planes and vintage uniforms. Carilion Clinic Patient Transportation will maintain a wall devoted to the history of its Lifeguard helicopter program that includes a video documenting how accident response works. "This was the first air medical unit in the state of Virginia," Moser said.

As for people, there's a corner devoted to Roanoke pilot Wes Hillman, 90, and the business he operated for 33 years in Roanoke, Hillman's Flying Service.

Hillman will attend the opening festivities Saturday. Cast members of Hollins University's play "Decision Height," about Women Airforce Service Pilots in World War II, will also attend in costume, Moser said.

The final stretch of the gallery includes a number of showpieces. There's a radio-controlled scale model, called a "drop model," of an F-18 that was used by NASA Langley Research Center to diagnose engineering problems. The model, including fake bombs made to scale, would be dropped from 10,000 feet to simulate flight conditions. It's on loan to the museum for a year.

There's a fuselage of a 1968 1121-A Jet Commander, donated by Roanoke businessman William Cranwell, that children will be able to climb inside, though they won't be allowed into the cockpit _ visitors will have to peek through the windows to see the controls.

The piece de resistance may be the three oral history touch-screen booths.

The stories were selected by Deena Sasser, the museum's recently hired historian, and then engineered by IDD Inc. of Blacksburg. The oral history segments take audio and video recordings of pilots and other aviation personnel from the region and augment them with relevant historical footage to provide a documentary feel.

Legion of Honor winner Bill Overstreet tells the story of flying under the Eiffel Tower in France to shoot down a German fighter plane during World War II, complete with a computer animation illustrating his flight path. The late Chauncey Spencer tells the story of how then-Sen. Harry Truman cleared the way for him to become a pilot after training programs refused to teach him because he was black.

"Nobody else has this in Roanoke," Moser said of the touch-screen exhibit.

"What we're doing in here is a test in a lot of ways," Ferguson said. The museum wants to eventually have oral history booths in its rail and automobile galleries, she said.

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