The advance guard of a rare collection of antique aircraft and other early aviation items has arrived at its new home at Shannon Airport, just outside Fredericksburg in Spotsylvania County.
In reality, though, the historic flying machines are coming home after three decades at a museum in Richmond.
They are returning to where they were first carefully gathered over a period of years by the late Sidney L. Shannon Jr., whose efforts were halted by his unexpected death in 1981.
There were many long faces when the last of the planes left the airport on a cold, gray day in December 1986, and certainly no one thought they would ever come back.
As a symbolic gesture, one of the meticulously cared-for aircraft, an orange-and-yellow 1929 Curtiss Robin, was rolled out of the Spotsylvania museum and flown to Richmond that day. The pilot was Ray Tyson, a longtime friend of Shannon and an officer of the Virginia Aviation Historical Society. All the other planes in the collection were disassembled and moved via truck.
When the first three of the “Shannon” machines returned recently, the Robin was among them, although it was trucked for the trip this time.
The man behind the rebirth of the Shannon Air Museum may be as remarkable as the man who made the original museum possible. He is a low-key Spotsylvanian, Luke D. Curtas, who has a business manufacturing high-tech plastic fencing, with plants in both Virginia and Florida.
Curtas, an avid pilot and successful businessman, said he saw an opportunity in the recent closing of the Virginia Aviation Museum in Richmond.
He also saw an opportunity in Shannon Airport, where repairs and improvements had backed up for years before he acquired it. Since then, has put his own money (he won’t say how much) into Shannon, turning a declining, privately owned airport into a showcase facility for the general aviation community—resident pilots and transient travelers alike.
Recently, Curtas showed off the reassembled Curtiss Robin, a SPAD VII fighter plane of World War I, and a 1927 Pitcairn Mailwing.
Each of those aircraft was not only flyable, but flown from time to time when Shannon operated the museum, as were almost all of the other planes in the collection.
Curtas said the ongoing task of reconstructing the museum collection here is expected to take until mid-spring, when he will hold a grand opening of the new facility.
“This hangar,” he said, “won’t hold all 12 planes in the collection, so we’ll have a few of them in a couple of other buildings here and probably rotate them with planes displayed in the big building.”
In addition to the Shannon collection, Curtas said he will expand it with other planes and artifacts, including the legendary Piper Cub owned and flown by Charlie Kulp for decades at the Flying Circus Aerodrome in Bealeton. Kulp, now retired, said “I wanted to put it in a museum in Virginia,” though his Cub is now at a museum in Raleigh, N.C.
Among the many honors of that plane and its pilot are that he was invited to fly his “Flying Farmer” act for the Queen of England on a tour of that country.
Curtas said he could not re-create the Shannon Museum without the enormous assistance he has received from volunteers.
Indeed, volunteers were putting the finishing touches on reassembly of the early birds just after the hangar floor received two coats of a special epoxy paint.
Curtas said a marketing and promotional program is necessary to let the public know about the museum. He will be working with local tourist officials in an effort to keep the public aware of the museum and the story of the early years of aviation, especially Virginia aviation.
Ray Tyson, a board member of the Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society, which played a key role in the establishment and operation of the now-shuttered museum in Richmond, said marketing is a key factor to long-term success.
“Last year we had 13,000 visitors at the museum,” he said. Experts on museum operation say it takes about twice that number to survive.
“It’s a wonderful thing, what Curtas is doing up there at Shannon [with the museum],” said Tyson. Tyson has a long history with the Shannon Air Museum and with the Virginia Aviation Historical Society. He remains on the board of the latter.
Curtas has already established an advisory board for the new museum, and intends to enlarge, improve and operate it indefinitely.