Airmail museum effort up in air

Virus puts fundraising for Smith Field project on hold

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

Plans for a proposed National Airmail Museum at Fort Wayne’s Smith Field are in a holding pattern, but the project’s course appears certain to change if funding is secured.

Bob Wearley, president of the museum’s board of directors, said last week that the board has suspended fundraising efforts for six months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“There more than likely won’t be any money available for I don’t know how long to make this happen,” Wearley said, referring to the economic damage caused by the virus. 

The National Airmail Museum will cost $4.4 million to develop, according to a feasibility study. Although Congress in 2018 approved the museum’s designation at a Smith Field hangar, the legislation introduced by Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd, prohibits the use of federal funds for the nonprofit venture.

The nine-member museum board spent $50,000 on the feasibility study conducted by Tessellate, a design studio in New York City. Along with estimating potential operating costs, visitor volume and revenue, Tessellate recommended alterations to its original museum blueprint – even expanding the name – to emphasize interactive exhibits.

The place would be known as Aviation Adventure at the National Airmail Museum and feature a “drone zone,” virtual reality flight simulators, a hands-on mechanical area, a maker space and a theater.

The museum also would house static displays such as vintage aircraft and pilot artifacts, plus the headquarters of the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 2, a gift shop and a 1940s-themed café.

Telling the story

Commercial airmail service started at the north-side airport in 1930, when it was called Paul Baer Municipal Airport. Baer and Art Smith were celebrated pilots from Fort Wayne who died while delivering mail – Smith in a 1926 plane crash near Montpelier, Ohio, and Baer in a 1930 plane crash in China. George Hill flew Smith Field’s first airmail route and became the airfield’s first fatality when he crashed a plane there in 1932.

“We want to tell a story about what these early airmail pilots went through to bring commercial aviation to what it is today. And that’s a story that’s not told in any museum in the country,” said Wearley, an Air Force veteran and retired commercial pilot who once worked for billionaire Howard Hughes.

He said museum board member Eric Olson came up with the tagline “The Greatest Stories Never Told” for the feasibility study.

The airmail story is “all these cowboys up in airplanes basically inventing piloting as we know it today,” said Joseph Karadin, co-founder and executive creative director for Tessellate.

“Fort Wayne has an amazing aviation heritage, and that should never get left off the table. … But we wanted to also create a participatory and interactive environment as well,” Karadin said. “The best way to learn the scientific principles and the STEM-based principles is to do it through hands-on interactive exhibits.”

He said the museum experience in the past 15 years “has moved from watching stories into participating in those stories.”

Or as Wearley recalled a museum board member musing, “Who wants to look at dusty old airplanes?”

“We’ve got to be more interactive with families so they will want to come back,” Wearley said.

62,000 visitors

Studying the demographics of the Fort Wayne “resident market” – defined as a 45-minute drive from the city – convinced Karadin and his team to revise their original approach. Their study concluded there is “strong potential market support” because of the area’s large population of school-age children, education levels and families with “time and disposable income for the leisure activities that are both educational and entertaining.”

The Tessellate study estimates the museum will attract 62,000 visitors a year. 

They will generate $525,000 a year in admission, gift shop and food and beverage revenue. But the museum will cost  $793,000 a year to operate, including $414,000 for a payroll for 7.8 full-time equivalent employees, so fundraising and giving programs would be required. 

“Your typical museum does not make money,” Karadin said. “A lot of museums rely on annual grant money, they rely on local donations and consistent fundraising revenue streams.”

Karadin said he understands the Midwest museum and entertainment market. He is from Akron, and his business partner, Emily Conrad, is from the Columbus, Ohio, area. Tessellate’s clients have included Earlham College in Richmond, where Conrad studied, and the Funk Music Hall of Fame, a Dayton venue that closed in 2019 but whose organizers reportedly seek a new home. 

Other clients have included the American Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of Mathematics, both in New York.

Tessellate’s feasibility study states that Aviation Adventure at the National Airmail Museum “has the potential to operate successfully over time, if assumptions regarding quality of facility development, operations and fundraising are met.”

But this project, like everything else, will have to wait out the coronavirus and the economic devastation it has caused. Wearley remains optimistic; he said he never doubted he would land a 400-passenger jetliner in Tokyo while sitting on the runway in Los Angeles. 

“It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark, for crying out loud. … When you get a roadblock, you figure out how to overcome it,” Wearley said.