FORT WORTH -- Plans for a major aviation museum in Fort Worth have been stuck in the conceptual stage for years, hindered at various times by a shortage of money, dissension among personalities and lapses in focus.
But today marks tangible progress in the years-long quest for a permanent museum: the opening of an aviation exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, an effort that city officials and leaders of the Fort Worth Air & Space Museum Foundation see as a crucial testing phase for their ideas.
"This trip is not a sprint; it's going to be a marathon," said Councilman W.B. "Zim" Zimmerman, president of the foundation. "Today we got out of the starting block. ... While we celebrate today, there's a challenge ahead."
The 8,500-square-foot exhibit, titled "Ascent ... When Dreams Defy Gravity," was paid for by the foundation, thanks in part to a $3 million short-term loan from the city. It will stay at the science and history museum through Labor Day and then be available to travel to other museums.
Its success in attracting visitors, generating interest and spurring donations to the foundation will be closely watched. Zimmerman believes that the creation of a stand-alone aviation museum in the next five years hinges on the reception of the exhibit, which arrives the same year as the centennial of aviation in North Texas.
Mayor Mike Moncrief, who leaves office in July, made his wishes clear during a preview Friday.
"Yes, our Western heritage is what we're famous for," Moncrief said. "But, if you think about it, aviation is just as much a part of our history as cattle and oil. ... We need a world-class aerospace museum to celebrate our history. This can be done. It should be done. And this new exhibition will lead us down that path."
The exhibit is far from a series of old photographs with explanations of who did what and why. Nor was it possible to park a bunch of airplanes on the second floor of the science and history museum.
Instead, the exhibit includes unique North Texas stories of the B-36 Peacemaker, V-22 Osprey, astronaut Alan Bean and more, plus explanations from scientists and engineers on the technology of taking an aircraft from design to flight. It has a hands-on design lab, a high-definition theater and large touch-screen computers where visitors can build their own aircraft and see whether it will get off the ground.
"It's a perfect complement to our audience and what we do by bringing together science, technology and history," said Carol Murray, the museum's marketing director.
The exhibit's designer, Sujit Tolat with Gallagher & Associates in Silver Spring, Md., said he wanted to broaden the exhibit's appeal by adding technology and engineering to the history and showcasing the work of innovators, not just pilots.
"We're trying to inspire that next generation of aviators, scientists and engineers," Tolat said.
Despite aviation's historic, continuing importance to Fort Worth, there has never been a comprehensive aviation museum here. The Fort Worth Aviation Heritage Association fizzled in its attempts to raise money throughout the 1990s. Hopes were further dashed when the Air Force moved two key aircraft, including the last B-36 manufactured, to other cities' museums.
Several years ago, though, some aviation-related groups such as the B-36 Peacemaker Museum and the Veterans Memorial Park near Meacham Airport revived a unified approach to jump-start the effort. That collaboration led to the formation of the air and space foundation.
Chris Vaughn, 817-390-7547