I have a well-documented fascination with machinery and bulky mechanical equipment that stretches back to my experiences with building plastic models as a youth. From there it progressed to bicycles, automobiles, steam plants, and anything with a military or Department of Defense pedigree. On this occasion I decided to press my daughter into indentured servitude as my official chronicler and headed to Sevierville, Tennessee to visit the Warbird Collection at the Tennessee Museum of Aviation.
The museum, at Gatlinburg Pigeon Forge Airport, contains a large variety of historical and informative exhibits relating to different eras of military and civilian flight. Expertly presented, the exhibits offer a plethora of information and allow a glimpse into the progressive development of aviation as well as artifacts from individuals whose contributions and acts of daring cemented the airplane’s role in history as one of the greatest mechanical marvels of all time. The items displayed include a relic from the USS Arizona, cutouts of aircraft engines, and an Amelia Earhart display donated to the museum by a local student.
The 35,000 square-foot hangar houses the largest exhibits, most of which are operational. One of the first to be noticed is the actual mock-up of the Bell-222 helicopter used in the 80’s television show Airwolf. From there it becomes apparent just how broad the collection is, covering multiple genres, types, and nationalities of flying craft. There are MiGs, a P-51 Mustang, an Albatross seaplane, and even a couple of vintage corvettes. The pride of the museum though is the pair of operational P-47 Thunderbolts. There are only twelve of the venerable aircraft known to exist and the museum managed to acquire not just one but two of them.
The special exhibits are the ones that cannot be displayed but are instead related orally. There is a painting at the entrance to the exhibit hall of a ditched airplane, the two occupants climbing out of the cockpit as rescue boats head there way. The rear figure is a local resident, immortalized in oil paint. An earlier visitor once inquired about the correctness of the tail number on a weathered UH-34G helicopter. Once the number was confirmed the visitor revealed that he was piloting that same bird as it was shot down in Vietnam some forty years ago. The most haunting is a rusted hulk in the corner, what’s left of the fuselage of a plane recovered from “somewhere in the Pacific Ocean” where no plane was recorded being downed. Its bent prop telling of a hard crash with the engine still turning.
My daughter and I had the great fortune to meet Jerry, one of the docents of the museum. His knowledge of the aircraft and friendly demeanor captivated my daughter and me as he led us on a guided tour of the facility. Upon finding out about my daughter’s keen interest in Amelia Earhart, Jerry led us to the cockpit from an A-4 Skyhawk and helped her climb into the pilot’s seat. After a memorable tour we exited through the well-stocked gift shop and purchased souvenir mugs to commemorate our visit. Once again I got to play Cool Dad and provide to one of my kids an experience unavailable on iTunes.
© 2014 G. Scott Brinkley. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.