The stars are aligned for something special here; will civic leaders rise to the challenge with the aviation museum?
While watching movies made in the 1930s and 1940s—too many actually, what with COVID and all—I came to a realization almost impossible to confirm, but that is surely correct: other than New York City, and maybe Chicago and Los Angeles, no city is mentioned more in the movies of that era than Kansas City.
What took Kansas City off the Hollywood map? The airplane. Although few movies were set in Kansas City—close to none—characters often mentioned Kansas City as a place to pass through or even stop. People stopped stopping in Kansas City some 70 years ago. Once they stopped stopping, they stopped talking about us.
The new Kansas City International Airport, for all its promised amenities, will look much like every other modern airport in America. Given all the conniving, dissembling, and squabbling that preceded its construction, locals likely will not welcome it as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Kansas City does have, however, one aviation distinction that is worth bragging about, namely, a history of flight as rich as that of any city in America.
We now have the opportunity to make the rest of the world aware of that history.
Some background is in order. With the passage of the Airmail Act of 1930, the United States Postmaster General was granted the authority to consolidate air service, presumably in order to improve mail delivery. The postmaster’s decisions resulted in the birth of three major airlines.
I would be inclined to lament business-government collusion here, save for the fact that one of those airlines located its operational center here in Kansas City. Call it the OKOIMBY factor: “O.K. only in my backyard.”
That airline, of course, was Transcontinental Air Transport and Western Air Express. Thinking ahead, savvy executives shortened the name to Trans World Airline, better known still as TWA. In its day, the only better-known brand in the world was Coca-Cola. More often than not, movies of that era showing an airliner flying over Kansas City showed a TWA plane.
TWA’s operational headquarters was housed in an impressive, still functional, two-story structure located on the grounds of what is now known as the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport. Many aviation greats have walked through the headquarters and the adjoining hangar: Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and the uber-eccentric owner Howard Hughes—Leo DiCaprio in the movie—to name a few.
Today, this facility houses the TWA Museum. For the many TWA veterans who remained in the area, the museum is a second home. I have come to know some of them well. I wrote two books and made a documentary about TWA Flight 800, the mysterious 1996 crash that killed 53 of their colleagues. The resolution of the crash left many of the TWA vets distrusting their government before it was cool, which is why they allowed C-SPAN Book TV to shoot its presentation for my second book at the facility, the perfect backdrop.
For years, counterproductive as it sounds, the Downtown Airport housed a competing entity, the Aviation History Museum. Both were underfunded, the Aviation History Museum fatally so. Today, the museum is padlocked for failure to pay lease fees. However, the facility does have severally fully restored iconic aircraft that are worth preserving and consolidating into a unified museum.
The TWA Museum at KC’s Downtown Airport has persisted, even expanded, because so many TWA veterans care. In that the airline closed up shop about 20 years ago, the youngest of the TWA vets are old enough to remember Lindbergh’s passing in 1974, not quite 50 years after he made the first cross-Atlantic solo flight.
They need help. A gussied-up and expanded museum would be perfectly positioned to catch the attention of all visitors by air that head Downtown. This will be a museum for everyone, one that anyone can find and no one is afraid to go to. The only possible item that might cause offense is the “stewardess” exhibit—my personal favorite—but people offended that easily do well to avoid the history of anything.
For most kids, boys especially, a field trip to a museum, any museum, is usually pure snooze. But just about all kids, boys especially, love airplanes. With the impending pilot shortage, and the urge by airlines to diversify their pilot ranks, a field trip to the restored museum just might launch a career or two.
Better still, this would be the rare new museum in which visitors are not hectored for screwing up the environment or profiting from someone’s misery. Anyone who has suffered through the Special Exhibit at the Johnson County Museum—”Redlined: Cities, Suburbs, and Segregation”—knows whereof I speak.
The organizers have presented a formal business plan to the Kansas City Aviation Department. A business plan is a start, but in an area fractured by state and county lines, not to mention identity politics, the TWA people need a champion.
In a sane world, a living, vibrant museum with the potential to attract all of the region’s residents and visitors would have real appeal for an aspiring politico. But by definition, a museum that interests everyone appeals to no “special interest,” and special interests grease the gears of politics.
Special interests have always greased those gears, but throughout Kansas City’s history—dating back at least to the opening of the Hannibal Bridge in 1869—there have been moments when civic leaders rose above their parochial concerns and pitched in for the common good.
This could be one of those moments.
The price shouldn’t be an issue: the whole shebang might cost about as much as 30 yards of streetcar line. Literally. By 2024, visitors to the city could deplane at the shiny new KCI, drive right by the spruced-up airline museum, and glide into town over the spiffy new Buck O’Neill Bridge.
The stars are in alignment. The quicker we move, the more it will seem like we planned this trifecta from the get-go.