- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 27, 2005

Prince George’s County is no 21st-century airport hub, but things were different about 100 years ago, during the golden age of aviation.

“We probably have more aviation history in this county than anywhere else in the country,” says Susan Fite, program curator at the College Park Aviation Museum.

The museum highlights much of this history, focusing on the accomplishments of pilots and aircraft at the College Park Airport, which is still in use.

The main gallery has 10 aircraft, some hanging from the ceiling, others standing on the floor. Among them are a 1910 Wright Model B and a 1946 Ercoupe, which was marketed as a plane anyone could fly.

“I love this ad,” Ms. Fite says, pointing to a reproduction of a 1940s newspaper advertisement for the aircraft. The ad shows a family preparing a picnic in front of their Ercoupe.

“The thought was that people would be able to go to their local Sears and buy a plane. … It didn’t really happen that way,” she says.

Some planes are reproductions; others are restored. Children can sit in the cockpit of one; another is cut in half so visitors can look inside the airplane and its wings.

“We try to be as family-friendly and hands-on as possible,” Ms. Fite says, “but we’re also a historic museum, so we have to have a balance.”

On the first floor, which consists of the main gallery and several smaller galleries, each space features something child-friendly. One area has Legos and airport play mats complete with runways; another area has airplane puzzles and aircraft paper cutouts children can color. An outside patio with a view of the airport runways features a dozen colorful small wooden airplanes that can be rocked or rolled by “junior pilots.”

A new feature, which can be enjoyed by both parent and child, is a 1911 Wright B flight simulator, which seats two passengers. It has authentic hand controls, giving visitors an idea of what it was like to be a pilot in those early days.

The museum also offers frequent family programs, such as a model train show set for 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday through Sept. 5.

“Why trains? Well, trains were important because they delivered planes. That’s part of why College Park was an attractive airport location. There was a train track nearby,” Ms. Fite says.

Another popular family program is the annual visit by Jay Jay the Jet Plane from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., to take place this year on Sept. 17 and 18. Later in the fall, the museum will offer a kite-making workshop, a model-making workshop, an open house at the restoration and a Halloween event.

For more mature audiences, the museum offers exhibits on gender and race in aviation history. The College Park Airport was segregated until the 1960s, Ms. Fite says. Black pilots had their own airport down the road in Croom. It was called Riverside Field and was started by John W. Greene Jr. It was the first black-owned and operated airport in the nation, Ms. Fite says. It closed in 1958, and the land is now part of the Patuxent River Watershed Park.

The College Park Airport also was the site of the first flight with a female passenger. The woman was Mrs. Ralph H. Van Deman (there is no record of her first name) and the pilots were none other than the Wright brothers. Wilbur Wright had come to the area from Ohio to teach military officers to fly the government’s first airplanes.

The Wright brothers are featured prominently, including an animatronic Wilbur Wright who greets museum visitors.

The role of women in aviation is covered in various exhibits, but there is a common thread — female pilots were not treated very well during the golden age of aviation (considered to be the 1920s to the 1940s), particularly not in the military, Ms. Fite says.

They were not allowed to fly in combat during World War II and therefore were not considered as indispensable as their male counterparts, Ms. Fite says.

“They would be assigned all the really dangerous missions,” she says. “They would tow targets and be shot at with live ammunition.”

Female pilots also would test-fly new and not always safe and sound aircraft, Ms. Fite says.

“It was not easy. … These women really wanted to fly.”

The museum’s second floor has two temporary exhibits: One showcases logbooks, and the other is a photo exhibit, “Rediscovering Early Flight Through a Lens: Photographing the Wright Experience.”

The 27,000-square-foot museum welcomes about 40,000 visitors a year, many of them families, Ms. Fite says.

“I think the best sign that this museum has something for all ages and levels is that we see the same families coming back again and again,” Ms. Fite says.

When you go:

Location: College Park Aviation Museum, 1985 Cpl. Frank Scott Drive, College Park.

Directions: Take Interstate 295 to the Kenilworth Avenue exit. Stay on Kenilworth Avenue for about four miles. Make a left onto Paint Branch Parkway and then a quick right onto Cpl. Frank Scott Drive.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; closed major holidays.

Parking: Free.

Admission: $4 for adults and $2 for children.

Information: 301/864-6029 or www.collegeparkaviationmuseum.com.

Notes: The College Park Aviation Museum features frequent family-friendly programs:

• Trains and Planes — 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday through Sept. 5. The National Capital Trackers, a local club of model train enthusiasts, will display and run a model railroad, complete with tunnels, depots and villages, through the museum’s main hall. The event is included in the regular admission.

• Jay Jay the Jet Plane — 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 17 and 18. Cartoon character Jay Jay the Jet Plane makes his annual visit to the museum. Children can have their pictures taken with the airplane, and arts and crafts will be featured. Tickets are $8 per person, which includes museum admission.

• Restoration Facility Open House — noon to 4 p.m. Sept. 24. This open house will give visitors a chance to see firsthand how aircraft are reproduced and restored. A 1911 Curtiss Pusher is being reproduced. The event is included in regular museum admission.

• Kite-Making Workshop — noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 15. This workshop is open to children 6 and older. The event is included in museum admission, plus $4 for each kite.

• Flight Night — 7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 29. The seventh annual Halloween Flight Night will feature arts and crafts, haunted hayrides and costume contests. Children and their parents are encouraged to wear costumes. Tickets are $4.

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