Virginia museum offers history of civilian, military aviation
The Shannon Air Museum near Fredericksburg, Va., might not have the recognition or the renown associated with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum 60 miles to the north.
But it has a Ping-Pong ball.
Specifically, on display is an autographed Ping-Pong ball from the first transatlantic roundtrip flight in aviation annals. Expert tour guide “Butch” Cover, an air enthusiast since he first took the controls of a Piper Cub 64 years ago, can tell you all about it.
Vultee V-1 AD (PHOTOS BY STEVEN JOHNSON)
Standing next to an all-metal Vultee V1-A, an eight-passenger plane built for American Airlines, Cover tells how pioneer pilot Dick Merrill and showman Harry Richman flew one edition, called Lady Peace, to London and back in 1936. The cargo: 41,000 buoyant Ping-Pong balls that could keep the plane afloat if it went down in the Atlantic.
“Therefore, it became known as the Ping Pong Ball Flight,” Cover laughs. “Fortunately, they didn’t have to test that theory, but when they got back, being the entrepreneurs they were, they pulled the balls out, signing them and selling them for two bucks apiece.”
The museum showcases one of the signed balls near its gleaming V-1AD, the only known surviving example of the aircraft, named Lady Peace II in tribute to Merrill and Richman.
THERE AND BACK AGAIN
The inspiration for the museum is Sidney Shannon Sr., who opened an airstrip around 1927 at what is now the site of the Fredericksburg Fairgrounds. With fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker, Shannon started Eastern Airlines.
His son, Sidney Jr., founded Shannon Airport in 1950 and started collecting rare aircraft as a way of honoring his father. The younger Shannon opened a museum with one-of-a-kind pieces in 1976. When he died, the collection moved to the Virginia Aviation Museum at Richmond Inter-national Airport. That museum, which housed about 38 aircraft, shut down in 2016.
By then, the husband-and-wife team of Luke and Kim Curtas had purchased the Fredericksburg airport, and started retrieving items from the Shannon collection. The revamped museum opened in 2017 and has been growing ever since.
It is located in a converted hangar and boasts of planes dating from World War I dogfights, along with memorabilia related to Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, as well as a wall honoring the Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame.
Butch” Cover (PHOTO BY STEVEN JOHNSON)
“The goal is to be more interactive, especially for youth, because we feel aviation is a great thing for young people to get involved with. In the future, we could see adding on a theater to the museum to watch something before the tour — lots of interactive elements,” says Kristen Curtas, assistant executive director at the airport.
What’s unique at the museum is that many of the planes, even ones nearly a century old, are currently or at least potentially airworthy.
In 2021, the museum added Stars & Stripes, a commercial DC-3 built in 1940, acquiring it from a pilot in Georgia. The propeller-craft plane was a mainstay of Eastern Airlines for many years, operating out of Massachusetts in the summer and Florida in the winter. Luke Curtas wanted an Eastern plane to tie into the history of Shannon Sr., Merrill and Rickenbacker.
1917 SPAD VII (PHOTO BY STEVEN JOHNSON)
“The plane has lived outside all its life,” he says. “With it here now, we hope to have the DC-3 experience, not to show it to people on the ground, but to actually fly it.”
The museum’s Vultee V-1AD alone has a history worthy of a Cecil B. DeMille biopic. Custom built for publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, its log book includes names such as Charlie Chaplin, Gregory Peck and Olivia de Havilland.
“The airplane has bounced off the top of school buildings. It’s been chained down by the federal government at least four times. At one point, down in South America, it apparently got into a landing accident with a dump truck and cut the cab in half,” Cover says.
Somehow, the plane sat abandoned on a runway in Bolivia until a movie producer decided it would make a good prop. The pilot who was hired to fly it to California conceived of a side gig — putting a group of monkeys on board for sale in the U.S., along with assorted birds and snakes.
A big crowd awaited them at arrival — federal agents prepared to nab them for bringing illegal animals into the country. Years later, Lady Peace II ended up in Oshkosh, Wisc., where Shannon Jr. saw it. “Wait a minute. That’s the airplane Dick Merrill flew,” Cover recounts Shannon as saying.
“So he went out and got it,” Cover says.
For more information, visit shannonairmuseum.com.