What do Charlie Chaplin, World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker, South Pole explorer Adm. Robert Byrd and billionaire Howard Hughes all have in common? Each has a connection to Fredericksburg’s own Shannon Air Museum.
That says a lot for a museum with fewer than a dozen planes on display. Yet, housed within its nondescript 1950s-era hangar is a rare collection of some remarkable aircraft waiting to be discovered by both the aviation enthusiast and novice alike. More than just dusty artifacts of a bygone era, these planes somehow breathe, brought to life in the stories told by the volunteer guides who lead the tours.
One of these volunteers is Fredericksburg resident Butch Cover, a 71-year-old Navy vet whose love of airplanes and all things flying dates to his childhood, when he says he wrecked more than one string-guided toy plane on his Ohio farm.
“It’s that experience of breaking the surly bonds of earth,” Cover said. “There’s nothing like flying.”
One of the first planes Cover points out on his tour is a World War I SPAD. This particular one is more famous for its service after the war, when it was used as a prop in the 1927 movie “Wings,” the first feature-length film to win an Academy Award. It is one of only three on display in the U.S. today, according to Cover. It was this type of plane Rickenbacker learned to fly before going on to achieve 26 kills in “dogfights” against German pilots.
Cover comments that fuel tanks during the war were located directly beneath the pilot’s seat. Since World War I pilots did not have parachutes, they feared burning to death if their planes were damaged. However, the SPAD’s design allowed pilots to drop their fuel tanks in flight, if necessary, and still glide it to an emergency landing.
Another World War I aircraft on display is the Scout, used exclusively as a trainer for American pilots. Like other planes from that time, it lacked brakes, making it necessary for ground crews to grab hand-holds on the lower wings to bring it to a stop after landing. Also unusual, when the Scout’s repeating rifle mounted to the top wing jammed, the pilot had to stand up in his seat in flight to fix it, leaving the plane without anyone at the controls.
Yet, by far, the museum’s most striking plane is the 1936 Vultee, the only one left in the world, according to Cover. Although more than 80-plus years have passed since it first took off, its shining aluminum fuselage still sparkles as proudly now as it ever did. Once owned by Howard Hughes, the Vultee at Shannon was used by movie stars Chaplain, Olivia de Havilland and Gregory Peck and it had its own role in the 1957 film “The Tarnished Angels” with Rock Hudson.
Drip pans rest under all the planes in the museum for oil still coming from the engines, curious for aircraft that have not flown in decades. Cover explains, “We’re maintaining as much of the flight status as we can in case they ever fly,” turning a propeller as he talks to keep it from freezing up.
To even a casual observer, it is clear that Cover’s passion for these airplanes involves more than just their history. His is a love affair revealed in his personal connection with them going back more than 40 years and even once flying four of them himself. He shares that love with museum visitors as he takes time to explain everything from the material used for the wings to the difficulty required to fly planes without any modern safety equipment, difficulty that led to more pilot deaths from training in World War I than from combat.
Nor is the museum’s collection limited to planes. It has one of Adm. Byrd’s dog sleds from his 1928 South Pole expedition, as well as the famous Norden bombsight designed at nearby Dahlgren naval base during World War II.
In its current location since 1950, Shannon Airport has been around a long time, too, and is still going strong. It averages 100 takeoffs and landings a day, according to Luke Curtas, its owner and the museum’s executive director. What is more, the airport is becoming a destination location.
“We’re open and people are coming,” Curtas said.
Since buying Shannon five years ago, Curtas and his wife, Kim, have revived its fortunes, adding not only the museum, but also a flight school, mechanic’s school, restaurant and gift shop. Plans call for charter flights to begin within three months, lodging for pilots who want to overnight in the area, and the museum’s expansion with a 2,900-foot addition within a year, according to Curtas. With only half its collection on display, there is room to grow, too.
Curtas really wants to make the airport part of the community, said another museum volunteer, Bob Cash of Stafford. He credited Curtas with the airport’s transformation these last few years.
“Luke is the reason this is all here,” Cash said. “It’s not for personal gain, but because of his love for aviation. It’s a place where people want to come.”
After the museum tour, visitors can enjoy lunch in the adjacent 1950s-style diner, the Robin’s Nest Café, converted from the airport’s original maintenance hangar. It is bright, friendly and inviting, a great place to gather on a cloudy day and an even better place to watch planes take off and land any day. Featured on the menu are meals such as the Cessna chicken tenders, P51 BLT, and the SPAD club sandwich, as well as sides and desserts. Even without the tour, it is worth the stop.
Sitting in the café after our tour, Cover explains what keeps him passionate for planes since his childhood back in Ohio. “It’s the love of knowing these airplanes and the hope they will grace the skies again. There’s something beautiful about seeing that aircraft lift off.”