Ohio is known as the “birthplace of aviation,” due to it being the native state of the Wright brothers. But unlike some other states, it doesn’t have a state aviation hall of fame. A dedicated group of aviation enthusiasts and supporters plans to change that.
Their goal: To transform the historic Port Columbus Airport terminal and control tower, opened in 1929, into the Ohio Air & Space (OAS) Hall of Fame and Learning Center.
“Ohio Air & Space will be an education force multiplier for all ages,” says Ron Kaplan, the executive director of the nonprofit 501(c)3 organization leading the project. “OAS will serve as a clearinghouse for Ohio youth education and collegiate aviation programs, providing a direct connection to our aerospace and technology industry partners that are committed to developing their future workforce.”
OAS has already formed some key partnerships toward this effort, including The Ohio State University, Youth Aviation Adventure, the Buckeye Tigers, a local FAA ACE Academy sponsored by the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, NetJets, and Flight Safety International. As the facility gets closer to becoming reality, Kaplan says he looks to partner with educational institutions across the state.
Living Aviation History
The art-deco-style Old Port Columbus terminal was home to the first scheduled coast-to-coast airline passenger service: Transcontinental Air Transport’s (TAT) Lindbergh Line, according to Robert F. Kirk, author of Flying the Lindbergh Line and The Building of an Airport: Port Columbus. The airline flew passengers from New York to Glendale, California, using Ford Tri-motors and a unique rail-to-air-to-rail-to-air route.
“The deeper you dig, the more amazing its history becomes,” Kaplan says. “On dedication day, Amelia Earhart was there and Henry Ford was there and Edsel was there. It’s like a who’s who of the era. Amelia worked for TAT…in a technical capacity. But Lindbergh was like their technical adviser and actually mapped out the route and thus picked that site, which became Port Columbus.”
Kaplan says trains were integrated into the cross-country route for two reasons: Overnight flying was dangerous at the time; and “the train industry was, of course, wary of aviation taking their business, so including them was useful to fundraising the airline.” The TAT route eastward consisted of New York to Columbus, Ohio, by train; and Columbus to Indianapolis, to St. Louis, Missouri, to Kansas City to Wichita, Kansas, to Waynoka, Oklahoma, by airplane. Then, Waynoka to Clovis, New Mexico, by train; Clovis to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Winslow, Arizona, to Kingman, Arizona, to Glendale, California, by airplane. “[It took] 48 hours!” Kaplan says.
TAT was ultimately absorbed by Maddux Air Lines, which eventually became TWA. When it opens, the hall of fame and learning center’s exhibits will include a display chronicling the history and evolution of Port Columbus. OAS already has a number of artifacts, thanks to the late Don Peters, a TWA captain and aviation history buff who donated his holdings to OAS, including his uniforms. “He also gave us some images, some amazing aerial shots of Port Columbus in the ‘30s and early ‘40s,” Kaplan says.
The former director of enshrinement and outreach for the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, Kaplan says OAS will enrich science and technical learning with the stories of Ohio’s aviation and space pioneers, such as the Wright brothers; astronauts Neil Armstrong and John Glenn; Jerrie Mock, the first woman to fly around the world; and the Tuskegee Airmen, which were based at Rickenbacker Air Force Base—to name a few.
In his book about the building of Port Columbus, Robert Kirk writes that it took “brave, intelligent, far sighted individuals to push the limits of imagination, machines, human stamina, and vision…to build a great airport with a successful design for people and machines of flight.”
Creating the hall of fame and learning center that will ultimately occupy this historic building will take a similar effort, according to Kaplan.
Transforming a Landmark
Old Port Columbus was abandoned as an air terminal in 1958, when the then-new Columbus International Airport (KCMH)—named for John Glenn in 2016—was built. Since that time, the facility, which is operated by the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, was mostly used for office space by various businesses, Kaplan says. Today, it sits on the southeast corner of the KCMH property—outside the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) perimeter.
Touring the historic terminal in 2014, Kaplan, says he was astonished at what he saw. “I had to put on booties and a mask to tour it, it was such an environmental disaster,” he says, owing to a failing roof and black mold throughout the building. In 2015, the terminal was listed as an “endangered” Columbus landmark. Thankfully, a community fundraising effort helped stabilize it in 2016. “They raised enough money to put a new roof on…they had a company come in and essentially gut the building down to the bare walls, floors, and ceilings of concrete tile,” Kaplan says.
A Columbus native, Kaplan remembers the building from earlier days. “I have a history with that building,” he says. “I was in there in 1991, awaiting a ride on the Collings Foundation B-24.” At the time, Ed Gillespie, a former chief test pilot for North American Aviation turned aviation consultant, was leasing the building for office space. As Kaplan waited for his ride on the restored aircraft, he sat next to two Tuskegee Airmen in the control tower, which had been converted to a lounge. “For that barnstorming event, it was open and being used by people waiting on their rides,” he says. He learned later that the two Tuskegee Airmen were Alex Boudreaux, the first African-American commercial air traffic controller—whose first commercial job as a controller was in that same tower—and Capt. Harold Sawyer, who flew 130 combat missions and scored two victories during World War II. Both have now passed away.
Four years ago, Kaplan was thrust headfirst into the renovation project. Aware of previous attempts to save the terminal and tower, he says he felt it was important that the building serve the aviation community and not become the home of a “pest control company…or a microbrewery.”
Kaplan had just left his long-term contract working for the National Aviation Hall of Fame when then Ohio Speaker of the House Cliff Rosenberger, who was a big fan of aviation history, asked to meet with him. “He wanted to know what my plans were…one thing I mentioned was that the [Port Columbus] terminal was at risk but that they had stabilized it and it was an historic site that the state should get involved in saving,” Kaplan recalls. “A couple weeks later, I got a text from the speaker…and he said how much money do you need for the Ohio Air and Space Hall of Fame.”
Kaplan wasn’t a stakeholder in the project at the time, but he quickly became one. That year, 2018, the state provided a $550,000 grant for the renovation of the terminal building, and the OAS effort was officially born.
A New Vision for Old Port Columbus
Kaplan and the OAS’s nine-member board of directors are now fundraising to turn the empty building into a state-dedicated space to honor Ohio’s aviation history. The OAS will announce later this week a $275,000 grant from the city of Columbus to support the renovation project and the nonprofit’s workforce development efforts, Kaplan says, adding that the organization is now “within striking distance with enough money to start phase one.”
He says donors and aviation enthusiasts from all over the country have stepped up to support the project. One such donor, Margi (Marsh) Bauer—who grew up in Columbus but who now lives in central California—says the terminal building is a treasure worth saving. Visiting the area a few years ago for a high school reunion, she says she drove around the area reminiscing. “Along the way, I drove past the old original air terminal. And I remembered it. It had slipped from my memory a little bit….I thought, oh my gosh, I just couldn’t remember how beautiful this art deco building is.”
Bauer’s family’s home was a close neighbor to the airport and, consequently, it left an indelible mark on her. “Growing up in Columbus where there are no oceans or mountains or fun things to do, really, the family entertainment was to go out to the airport in the afternoon or after dinner and watch planes come in and out….We just loved flying and the airports,” she says.
When Bauer, who is a board member for the Estrella Warbirds Museum in Paso Robles, California, heard about the formation of the OAS Hall of Fame and Learning Center and the future plans for the Old Port Columbus terminal, she was all in.
“This is something after my own heart,” she says.
Kaplan says several of the project’s donors have similar stories, and others just want to see the rare example of 1920s art deco architecture preserved.
OAS already has design plans. A three-story building with 3,300 square feet per floor, the ground level will be dedicated to the hall of fame exhibits; it will also serve as an event venue and will include a staging area for catering services, Kaplan says. The second floor will serve as a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) learning space, where aviation education groups can meet and local school children can participate in hands-on learning projects. The basement will be used for offices, storage, and archives.
Broken into two construction phases that will total roughly $4 million, the project’s first phase will include all new plumbing, electric, and mechanicals—and will build out the ground floor for the hall of fame exhibits, a welcome center, and a gift shop. An elevator will also be installed—which is a major undertaking in an historic building, Kaplan says. Upon the completion of phase one, he says the hall of fame will open, as fundraising and construction continues on phase two—the renovation of the top floor (the STEAM learning center) and the basement.
Kaplan is especially excited about the OAS’s corporate partnerships with NetJets and Flight Safety International, the latter which will help to source, maintain, and present simulators that will be accessible to the general public on the main exhibit floor and used for training students in the learning center. He’s also excited about the economic impact the facility will have. “We will employ over a dozen people and, of course, serve as a catalyst for very important workforce development activities, specifically in the aviation, aerospace, and technology industries.
“My friends in the aviation industry are virtually screaming for help as they struggle to fill positions; these kids are going somewhere and doing something for a living; to be able to attract and point them to rewarding careers in aviation—not just as pilots—would be rewarding to me.”
For more information visit the OAS website.