You can find a glimpse of the 1950s at the National Airline History Museum, as well as almost every decade of the 20th century.
Considering Kansas City’s importance in the history of commercial aviation — TWA was once based here — it’s only fitting that the city have a museum dedicated to the glory days of air travel and airplane manufacturers. The museum grew from the Save-a-Connie organization, founded specifically to obtain a vintage Lockheed Constellation and make it flight-worthy again.
Maintained and staffed by volunteers, many of them ex-TWA employees, the museum is tucked away inside Hangar 9 on the west side of the Wheeler Downtown Airport. You might want to check an online map before heading out, although the perimeter road has plenty of signs to point you in the right direction. Visitors pull into a parking lot where they can’t miss the museum’s name in enormous letters on the front of the hangar and follow a sidewalk running parallel to a chain-link fence topped with strands of barbed wire.
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A large painting depicting a Constellation in flight in vivid color is on one wall. A small gift shop offers T-shirts and a few model airplanes. On a recent visit I was joined by a man and his grandson, who was adamantly single-minded about the purpose of their visit: “Are we gonna see a Connie? Where’s the Connie? Is it through there? Can we see it? Does it say TWA on the side? Where’s the Connie? I wanna see the Connie.”
As though to expose the boy to the concept of delayed gratification, a tour guide arrived and ushered us into a screening room outfitted with airline seats, where we watched a short video on the history of American aviation. It explained how airlines offering passenger service were an outgrowth of airborne mail delivery companies and how, in just a few decades, rail passenger service was virtually abandoned by consumers in favor of air travel.
After that, we entered a smallish room with museum exhibits on airlines, airplanes and famous pilots. Our guide then invited us into the hangar to see a collection of historic aircraft — plus a couple of small active-duty planes used by the Civil Air Patrol — and provided detailed background information on each.
On view are the TWA Moonliner II, a dummy rocket that once sat atop TWA headquarters at 18th and Baltimore; a 1941 Douglas DC-3; a 1951/52 Martin 404; a 1940s biplane; a 1930s single-wing craft; and the museum’s crown jewel, a 1958 Lockheed 1049G Super Constellation. Volunteers are still working on rehabbing the interior of the Connie, but a walk-through allows you to see, among other things, comparatively enormous restrooms, luxurious leg room and a black-and-white photograph of an air hostess pouring coffee from elegant gleaming urns.
You walk away with the unmistakable feeling that modern air travel has less in common with the history on view than it does with the nearest bus station.
National Airline History Museum
201 N.W. Lou Holland Drive, Hangar 9
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday.
Cost: $8 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for ages 13 to 17. Free for kids 12 and younger.
Info: 816-421-3401; www.airlinehistory.org