Sarah Willett is standing in the Historical Aviation Memorial Museum in Tyler. Everywhere she turns are memorabilia that tell fascinating stories of how the United States conquered the sky.
There is so much to see, it is almost overwhelming.
“I’ve already learned a lot about aviation, but I still have a lot to learn,” Ms. Willett said.
Since being hired a few weeks ago as HAMM’s curator, she has been on a fast learning curve. Ms. Willett, whose background is in anthropology, is facing the huge task of identifying and creating a computerized record of each and every artifact she sees — literally hundreds of thousands of objects.
The items on view are only part of the museum’s vast collection. Carolyn Verver, president of HAMM’s board of directors, said many more items are in storage. So many items exist that no one knows for sure how large the archives is and exactly what it includes.
“That’s why we hired Sarah to come in and help us,” Mrs. Verver said. “We need her technical expertise.”
THE EARLY YEARS
In 2000, the corporate name was changed to Historic Aviation Memorial Museum to more accurately describe its mission to “present the advancement of aviation during the twentieth century through the collection, preservation and display of aviation memorabilia and aircraft for the education and benefit of the public.”
After Tyler built a new terminal on the west side of the airport, HAMM in 2006 entered an agreement with the city to occupy the old 1950s-era terminal building.
“This wonderful expansion opportunity enabled us to more than double our exhibit space, enlarge our gift shop and library, add a multimedia theater room, and provide additional educational programs,” notes a history of HAMM on its website.
The exhibit chronicling the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia over East Texas in 2003 includes the famous photos of glowing shuttle debris streaking across a blue sky taken by Tyler cardiologist Dr. Scott Lieberman. Around the corner from that is a flight simulator once used to train commercial airline pilots.
Several military aircraft on view on the tarmac outside the museum — including an F-4D Phantom II, a T-33 Shooting Star and an F-105D Thunderchief — were either donated and then carefully restored or are on loan from the Naval Aviation Museum and the Air Force Museum.
Mrs. Verver counts among the museum’s prized possessions a Norden Bombsite, a device used during World War II on high-altitude bombing raids. Calculating numerous factors such as altitude, plane speed wind direction, the computer told the bombardier exactly when to release bombs in order to hit designated targets.
“It was a top-secret weapon,” said Mrs. Verver. “They were told that if the plane was ever shot down to make sure it (bombsite) was destroyed and never got in the enemy’s hands.”
The Norden Bombsite was donated by the late Bob Layton, a former mayor of Tyler and one of HAMM’s founders. Also on view is part of the photo collection of the late Elmer Dixson, another HAMM founder.
Dixson, a photo officer in the Army Air Corps during World War II, was a member of the squadron that took aerial photographs of potential bombing sites in Japan. His collection includes the Army’s official pre-strike and post-strike photographs of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (photos that at one time were classified information).
Mrs. Verver estimates that this collection alone has about 30,000 individual items.
Ms. Willett has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a master’s degree in museum science from Texas Tech University where she worked in the Museum of Texas Tech University. Her experience includes mastery of PastPerfect, a software system that many museums use to keep track of inventory, share collections online and create visual exhibits.
Ms. Willett moved to Tyler in pursuit of a job that didn’t pan out. By coincidence, one of the first people she met here was Mrs. Verver. From the beginning, Ms. Willett said she was impressed with the museum and its enthusiastic board and staff.
The museum is run with a skeleton crew of part-time workers and volunteers — something that both Ms. Wilett and Mrs. Verver want to change.
“We are in desperate need of people willing to volunteer,” Mrs. Verver said. Volunteers help restore planes, work in the gift shop, lead education classes and presentations and serve as docents.
Volunteers will also help Ms. Willett catalog what Mrs. Verver says is an ever-growing inventory.
“People still bring us stuff all the time,” Mrs. Verver said. “They find (aviation) things in their elderly parents’ attic and then they box it up and bring to us because they want it to be saved and shared.”