Electronic Field Trip to the Aviation Museum of Kentucky

KET’s Electronic Field Trip to the Aviation Museum of Kentucky is a fun and educational visit celebrating over 100 years of powered flight. The 15-minute video spotlights several museum exhibits, including the first aircraft built and flown in Kentucky and the Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame, and features segments on women in aviation and Kentucky aviation pioneers. A look at the Aviation Museum’s annual Summer Camp for students ages 10-15 demonstrates how the study of aviation fits into many curriculum areas, including science, math, and social studies.

Electronic Field Trip to the Aviation Museum of Kentucky (Video)

A visit to the Aviation Museum of Kentucky, at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, spotlights historic airplanes, Kentucky aviation pioneers, visiting World War II bombers, and the role of women in wartime aviation. A 2003 KET production.

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Ride a B-17 Bomber (Video)

Flying from Louisville to Lexington.

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About the Museum


The Aviation Museum of Kentucky is located at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington. Opened to the public in August 1995, it includes 12,000 square feet of exhibit space, a library, a gift shop, and a restoration and repair shop.

The museum collection includes historic airplanes, training equipment, photos, and documents. Many of the original items were gathered from the personal collections of members of the Kentucky Aviation History Roundtable, the local aviation enthusiasts who conceived the idea of a permanent museum. Today, an active volunteer support and fund-raising organization works to expand offerings, acquire and build new exhibits, and host special events.

The AMK also includes a variety of hands-on educational activities that let visitors experience the sensations and the science of flight. One of the most popular programs, seen in the field trip, is the annual Aviation Summer Camp for students ages 10-15. Held in several cities around Kentucky, the camps introduce students to the physics of flight and the history of aviation while they help plan their “graduation” activity—a flight in a four-seat airplane.

Located on Hangar Drive, just off the main entrance-way to Blue Grass Airport, the Aviation Museum of Kentucky is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm ET and Sunday from 1:00 to 5:00 pm ET. For more information, call (859) 231-1219, e-mail museum@aviationky.org, or visit the museum web site at www.aviationky.org.

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Museum Exhibits


This list of some of the airplanes, aviation equipment, and training devices you can see at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky was taken from a recent self-tour brochure. But remember: Displays change all the time!

EXHIBIT A: Heath Center Wing

(red plane on a metal stand)
The Heath Center Wing was built by the firm that made the popular electronic Heath Kits. This aircraft won a number of air races in the 1930s and was exhibited at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

EXHIBIT B: Sellers Quadruplane

(four-wing aircraft)
Matthew Sellers did independent, original aviation research in Carter County, Kentucky. This exhibit is a replica of the aircraft he built near Grahn and flew in 1908—just five years after the Wright Brothers’ flight. The first airplane designed, built, and flown in Kentucky, the Sellers plane was also the first aircraft with retractable wheels. It had no brakes, but landed on skids to shorten its stopping distance.

EXHIBIT C: Bell OH-58 Kiowa

(green Army helicopter)
This aircraft, formerly used by the Kentucky National Guard, is the military version of the Bell Ranger, the most successful civilian helicopter in the world. Used in Vietnam as an attack and reconnaissance platform, the OH-58 carried rockets and 7.62mm mini-guns. Visitors are welcome to climb in and “fly” this aircraft. Please watch your step!

EXHIBIT D: Crosley “Moonbeam”

(aqua blue biplane)
This plane was built in 1929 by Powell Crosley, the developer of Crosley Field, the former ballpark of the Reds in Cincinnati. Only five Crosley aircraft were ever built. The one on display here is airworthy and scheduled to be flown regularly. Crosley also built cars (one is displayed next to the plane), refrigerators, and radios. Note the grille ornament on the auto.

EXHIBIT E: Aeronca Model K

(yellow single-wing plane)
This aircraft is of a type called a “taildragger”; its third wheel is at the tail, not at the nose. Compare it to the Cessna 150, a “nosewheel” or “tricycle.” It was built in 1937 by Aeronca (the Aeronautical Corporation of America) at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati. Although nearly 65 years old, this craft is still airworthy.

EXHIBIT F: Lockheed Electra 12

(silver and orange twin-engine plane)
This plane was owned by an Australian who did business in Germany. He made it into a spy plane by hiding cameras in the wings and fuselage, then used it to take pictures of German military installations. It was the last Allied plane to leave Berlin in 1939, one week before Poland was invaded. This plane has been featured in movies and on the TV program Wings, and a Lockheed Electra 12 was featured in the movie Casablanca. Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic (1932) and from Hawaii to California (1935), was flying an Electra 10 model when she disappeared in 1937 while attempting to fly around the world. This historic aircraft is flyable and for sale.

EXHIBIT G: Piper L4 “Grasshopper”

(green plane with many windows)
The military version of the Piper Cub (J-3), this plane was flown in World War II mainly to direct artillery fire against military targets, but it had many other uses. Museum co-founder Dr. George Gumbert and his wife, Skip, flew this aircraft in Europe during the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The white stripes were painted on all Allied planes to enable ships’ gunners to distinguish friend from foe.

EXHIBIT H: T-38 “Talon”

(long, low jet aircraft)
In use for almost 40 years, the Talon is the current Air Force advanced trainer. The Thunderbirds, the USAF Flight Demonstration team, flew this type of aircraft for eight years. NASA uses T-38s for training and transportation of astronauts. The front-line fighter version of this plane, the F-5, at one time was used by 37 nations. The Talon is capable of supersonic flight—speeds in excess of Mach 1. Famous woman pilot Jacqueline Cochran (who headed the WASPs during World War II) set a speed record in the T-38 in 1961.

EXHIBIT I: Travel Air D4D

(red, white, and blue Pepsi-decorated biplane)
Built in 1929, N434N was originally owned by Andy Stinis, who used it for skywriting for Pepsi-Cola for more than 20 years. Pepsi ceased skywriting promotions in 1953, but revived the practice for the firm’s 75th anniversary. After serving as an apprentice in 1980, Suzanne Asbury-Oliver was named the chief Pepsi skywriter in 1981 and has flown N434N extensively since then. Pepsi donated the aircraft to the National Air and Space Museum. It will go on display in the Smithsonian’s new building at Dulles.

EXHIBIT J: A4 Skyhawk

(blue and gold Blue Angels jet)
The A4 Skyhawk was the primary Navy carrier attack aircraft in the Vietnam War. It can carry a variety of weapons. Two cannons were carried for self-defense and for support of ground forces. Almost 50 years since it was designed, three foreign air forces still use the A4. This aircraft has been painted in the colors of the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron. The Blue Angels used the A4 for 13 years—longer than any other aircraft. This type of plane was flown by Blue Angel pilot and Lexington native Mike Nord.

EXHIBIT K: Pulsar Ultralight Aircraft

(white plane with a bird on it)
The Pulsar is an example of an all-composite or fiberglass-construction aircraft, designed for sport or recreation purposes. They are primarily two-occupant aircraft. This plane can be purchased partially pre-molded as a kit, and can be built in about 1,000 hours by anyone with basic hands-on skills. Museum members Al and Karen Belt built and flew this aircraft. Suspended around the hangar are other examples of kit planes.

EXHIBIT L: Cessna 150

(blue and white two-seat aircraft)
Visitors may sit in this aircraft and work the controls. Watch the movement of the control surfaces as the wheel and rudders are moved. Since the radio is tuned to the Blue Grass Airport tower, you may hear conversations between pilots and tower personnel. This plane was rebuilt for the museum by the high school students of the Southside Center for Applied Technology in Lexington.

EXHIBIT M: Pratt-Read Sailplane

(partially dismantled)
This is a Navy training sailplane used in World War II. It has been partially dismantled to demonstrate the delicate structure of an aircraft wing. This aircraft holds the world’s two-place glider altitude record of 44,255 feet. It had a wingspan of 55 ft. and weighed 770 lbs. empty.

EXHIBIT N: Youngsters’ Flight Simulator

(miniature white aircraft)
The AMK flight simulator was built by museum volunteers to demonstrate a plane’s movement in the sky. This is not a ride; young pilots use pedals and stick to control the craft’s pitch, roll, and yaw.

EXHIBIT O: Link Trainer

(dark blue and yellow cockpit)
The Link instrument training device was used in all armed services flight training schools from the 1930s through the 1960s. The instructor sat at the desk and watched a bar representing the aircraft’s simulated flight. Student pilots had to take off, fly to a designated airport, and land … all done flying “blind.” Many a student developed his or her first case of vertigo in this machine! The student was under a great deal of pressure, and many gallons of sweat were lost.

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Lesson Plan - Vocational Studies/Exploring Careers in Aviation

Grade Level: Grades 4-12
Subject of Study: Vocational Studies
Concept/Objective: Exploring and Defining Careers in Aviation

Instructional Strategies and Activities

NOTE: This lesson is designed to give insight into career options available in Kentucky and globally to students who may be interested in such careers. It is designed to inform and define specific aviation careers, allowing students to broaden their career options.

Prepare students by asking the following questions:

  • What is aviation?
  • How many of you have ever wanted to fly a plane?
  • How many careers in aviation are you aware of?
  • Did you know that there are 96,000 aviation jobs in Kentucky?
  • Did you know that these careers are targeted for more interests than simply piloting a plane?

Today we are going to look at careers in aviation. How many of you are really good at …

  • math?
  • science?
  • technology?
  • industrial technology?
  • history?

After we watch this program, I want you to be able to name some careers that were mentioned and detailed in the program.

Watch KET’s Electronic Field Trip to the Aviation Museum of Kentucky (Video)

Discuss career possibilities with the class. What was intriguing? What did they find interesting? What did they learn about aviation from the program? Inform students of careers in aviation that aren’t detailed or mentioned in the program, using the following list as a guide. You probably will not have time to discuss everything listed here, but try to cover each category and a range of salaries in each. This information is primarily to aid in answering questions.

Inform students that there are many aviation opportunities here in Kentucky. The following contacts may help in deciding postsecondary education options:

Aviation Maintenance School in Kentucky
Somerset Community College
230 Airport Road
Somerset, KY 42501
(606) 677-4049

Eastern Kentucky University Aviation Program
245 Whalin Complex
521 Lancaster Ave.
Richmond, KY 40475
(859) 622-1014

Review with students some of the available career options and what aviation means.

Follow up with the open-response activity.

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Open-Response Assessment

You are interested in a particular career in aviation (you decide which) and have noticed that there is an entry-level opening in the classifieds at an establishment near you. You have just begun thinking of the possibility of a career in this position and have not yet begun formal education in the field. The classified ad states that no experience or college education is necessary—only a high school diploma and an interest.

Create a trial résumé to send to this agency. Include objective, education, special skills, interests, and a list of references. Attach a cover letter that describes your personality and why the company should hire you. Define the position clearly, and explain why you fit the position.

Open-Response Scoring Guide

4 Student exhibits extensive understanding of the concepts and vocabulary of aviation careers, résumés, and cover letters while consistently and effectively communicating this knowledge and understanding with the use of insightful details.
3 Student exhibits broad understanding of the concepts and vocabulary of aviation careers, résumés, and cover letters while effectively communicating this knowledge and understanding with the use of insightful details.
2 Student exhibits basic understanding of the concepts and vocabulary of aviation careers, résumés, and cover letters while somewhat effectively communicating this knowledge and understanding with the use of some details.
1 Student exhibits minimal understanding of the concepts and vocabulary of aviation careers, résumés, and cover letters while ineffectively communicating this knowledge and understanding with the use of no details.
0 Blank, no answer, or irrelevant response.

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Portfolio-Appropriate Writing for the Lesson

Transactive: Write a letter to a person in an aviation career stating your interest in his or her field and inviting an opportunity for the two of you to talk about the career so that you can get answers to your questions to help you make an educated decision in your career choice.

Transactive: Write a feature article for your local newspaper, detailing the many careers in aviation and how these positions affect our economy and our lives.

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Extensions for Diverse Learners

  • Find out more about the Aviation Museum of Kentucky’s Summer Camp.
  • Visit the Aviation Museum of Kentucky.
  • Contact someone who holds a position in aviation that is of interest to the student and request permission for the student to shadow the person in his or her job. (Be sure that all safety issues are addressed and procedures agreed upon by everyone involved.)
  • Create a documentary about an aviation career, interviewing people and visiting job sites.
  • Take a closer look at careers in aviation.

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Applications Across the Curriculum

  • Science: Careers in Science
  • Technology: Careers in Technology
  • Mathematics: Careers in Mathematics
  • Social Studies: Kentucky and American History of Aviation

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Lesson Plan - Women in Aviation

Grade Level: Grades 9-12
Subject of Study: Social Studies/History
Concept/Objective: During World War II, young women pilots were selected by the Air Force to be the first women in history trained to fly American military aircraft. They became pioneers, heroes, and role models. They were the Women Air Force Service Pilots, or WASPs. Lesson objective: understanding the significant roles of women in WWII, especially the WASPs (Women Air Force Service Pilots).

Instructional Strategies and Activities

Background Information for Teacher

“This is not a time when women should be patient. We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and every weapon possible. Women pilots, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used.”

—Eleanor Roosevelt, 1942

“If the nation ever again needs them, American women will respond. Never again will they have to prove they can do any flying job the military has. Not as an experiment. Not to fill in for men. They will fly as commissioned officers in the future Air Force of the United States with equal pay, hospitalization, insurance, veterans’ benefits. The WASP have earned it for these women of the future.”

—On Final Approach by Byrd Howell Granger, p. 476

“You don’t need legislation to prove something…. You can be whatever you set your heart and head to be, and don’t let anybody tell you you can’t be, because 1078 women pilots did it in World War II.”

—Annelle Henderson Bulechek, 44-w-2

The WAFS (Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron) were officially the first women pilots to fly military planes. Nancy Harkness Love began this ferrying squadron. Then the WASP training program started, and the WAFS became part of the WASP. Their requirements were strict, and many of these women were instructors.

In the beginning, the WASP program signed up only the most experienced women pilots—women who had spent many hours flying planes! As the program carried on successfully, requirements became more lenient. Still, women were treated differently from men. While NO pilot hours were required of male pilots, even the last classes of WASPs were required to have had a minimum of 35 pilot hours.

What did the WASP pilots do? They ferried B-17s to aviation airfields and targets. They did everything except combat.

There were fewer than 1,100 WASPs.

This lesson is designed to inform and educate students of an incredible time in our history, both in aviation and in women’s rights.

Lesson Plan

Introduce the lesson by talking about aviation. Ask whether anyone has ever flown a plane, traveled via plane, or thought of aviation as a career. What roles did aircraft play in WWII? Did students know that women and aircraft were an integral part of the success of the war?

Discuss women’s rights and roles in the 1940s with students. How were women perceived during this time?

While watching the following program, jot down three facts about women in aviation. What aircraft did they fly? What careers did they hold? What makes their roles significant to us today?

Watch KET’s Electronic Field Trip to the Aviation Museum of Kentucky (Video)

Discuss the program and students’ responses. Discuss the WASP project and World War II in more depth.

The following women are very important in Kentucky and/or aviation history. Have students select one name from the list (add more names, if you like), research that woman and her role in our history, and write a brief biography.

  • Evelyn Bryan Johnson, WASP
  • Rose Will Monroe (built B-24 and B-29 bombers in 1942)
  • Mary Edith Engle, WASP
  • Fay Gillis Wells, first American woman to fly a Soviet civil aircraft (Ninety-Nines)
  • Amelia Earhart, flew an L-10
  • Willa Brown Chappell (1906-1992), the first African-American woman to hold a private pilot’s license; from Glasgow, KY

Students should share their findings with the class.

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Open-Response Assessment

It is 1943, you are a news reporter, and you have been asked to write a feature article for your local newspaper about a controversial issue: Women Pilots Join Male Cadets in the Skies over the United States. You must define this new role of women in the military and why it is necessary to the success of the war.


  • Describe how you would cover this story, depicting both sides of the issue, the time in history, and the ripple effect this development is having on women in the U.S.
  • Compare and contrast the treatment of men and women during this time, considering the pay differences, the accommodations of the genders, etc.

Open-Response Scoring Guide

4 Student exhibits extensive understanding of concepts and vocabulary while consistently and effectively communicating this knowledge and understanding with the use of insightful supporting examples or details.
3 Student exhibits broad understanding of concepts and vocabulary while effectively communicating this knowledge and understanding with the use of supporting examples or details.
2 Student exhibits basic understanding of concepts and vocabulary while somewhat effectively communicating this knowledge and understanding with the use of some supporting examples or details.
1 Student exhibits minimal understanding of concepts and vocabulary while ineffectively communicating this limited knowledge and understanding with the use of no supporting examples or details.
0 Blank, no answer, or irrelevant response.

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Portfolio-Appropriate Writing for the Lesson

Literary: Write a monologue of a female aviation pioneer you have studied. The monologue should reflect the time period in which the pilot marked our history and the trials she had to overcome in her position.

Transactive: Write a letter to a female aviation pioneer that you have studied or would like to meet to discuss her experience, her motivation, and her success. In the letter, state why you picked her and what impact she has had on you as an individual. Tell her about how she has influenced women. Ask her any questions you would like answered.

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Applications Across the Curriculum

  • Practical Living: women’s studies and accomplishments
  • Vocational Studies: careers for women

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Kentucky Aviation Pioneers

Willa Brown Chappell (1906-1992)

Willa Brown ChappellWilla Beatrice Brown was born on January 22, 1906 in Glasgow, KY. A pioneering aviator, she earned her pilot’s license in 1937, making her the first African-American woman to be licensed to fly in the United States. In 1939, she received a commercial pilot’s license. She was the first black woman to make a career of aviation and, according to biographer Betty K. Gumbert, was the person most responsible for preparing black pilots for World War II.

Inspired by aviatrix Bessie Coleman, Willa started taking flying lessons in 1934 at Chicago’s Aeronautical University. Soon she became a member of the Challenger Air Pilot’s Association and the Chicago Girls Flight Club and purchased her own airplane. The same year she received her pilot’s license, she also earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University.

Willa Brown co-founded the National Airmen’s Association of America, an organization whose mission was to get African Americans into the United States Air Force, in 1937. Three years later, she and Lieutenant Cornelius R. Coffey started the Coffey School of Aeronautics, where approximately 200 pilots were trained in the next seven years. Some of those pilots later became part of the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Tuskegee Institute—also known as the legendary “Tuskegee Airmen.” Willa’s efforts were directly responsible for the squadron’s creation, which led to the integration of the military in 1948.

In 1941, she became the first African-American officer in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), and the U.S. government named her federal coordinator of the CAP Chicago unit. By adding her mechanic’s license in 1943, Willa became the first woman in the United States to have both a mechanic’s license and a commercial pilot’s license.

Brown also lobbied Washington for the inclusion of African Americans in the Civilian Pilot Training Program and the Army Air Corps. In 1942, she became a training coordinator for the Civil Aeronautics Administration and a teacher in the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

In 1955, Brown married Rev. J.H. Chappell and became very active in the West Side Community Church in Chicago. She was appointed to the Federal Aviation Administration Women’s Advisory Board in 1972 in recognition of her contributions to aviation in the United States as a pilot, an instructor, and an activist. She died on July 18, 1992 at the age of 86.

Willa Brown Chappell was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame for her native state of Kentucky in 2003.

Matthew B. Sellers II (1869-1932)

Matthew B. Sellers IIMatthew Bacon Sellers II was born in Baltimore in 1869, the first son of two native Kentuckians. Beginning in about 1889 and continuing until about the time of the first World War, he conducted basic aeronautical research, progressing from balloons and small flying models and kites to wind-tunnel testing of airfoils, then on to designing, building, and flying a variety of weight-shift-controlled hang gliders. Although he corresponded with other notable aviation pioneers of the time, such as Samuel Langley and Octave Chanute, Sellers worked independently, contributing a number of papers that were published in Scientific American and other technical journals of the period. He received several patents for his kite and aircraft designs.

In the 1880s, Sellers’ mother repurchased about 200 acres of land that had previously been owned by her family near Grahn, KY. Sellers built a second home there in 1889, naming it Blakemore. He spent a portion of each year there until 1911, dividing his aeronautical research efforts between Blakemore and a third home he had built in Warren County, GA.

In late 1908, Sellers added a 7 hp. engine, landing gear, and flight controls to his quadruplane No. 6 glider, producing a powered aircraft capable of making 180-degree turns that would eventually make a number of flights in excess of a quarter of a mile. It was the world’s first functioning aircraft to feature retractable landing gear. His initial short hops in this aircraft, at Blakemore on December 28, 1908, were the first powered airplane flights to be made in Kentucky.

But then in October 1911, tragedy struck Blakemore when one of Sellers’ employees was struck in the head by a propeller and killed. Filled with remorse, Sellers left Kentucky four days later. He would return only once, for a brief visit in 1931. After being seriously injured in a crash himself while demonstrating his aircraft in New York in 1914, Sellers ceased flying and gradually turned his attention to other endeavors.

However, by this time he had become a recognized expert in aeronautics, and starting in 1915 he served under Thomas Edison on the Naval Consulting Board. He married in 1918 at age 49, fathering two sons.

Sellers built his last aircraft at his home in New York in 1926, but it burned the following year due to a faulty carburetor before it could be flight-tested. While recovering from pneumonia in early 1932, Sellers suffered a fatal heart attack at age 63.

With the passage of time, Sellers’ accomplishments were all but forgotten. But in 1967, aviation historian Edward Peck learned of some of Sellers’ achievements and began collecting relevant artifacts, documents, photos, and oral histories. With the permission of the inventor’s two sons, Peck also worked with a group of Carter County citizens to preserve Blakemore. Thanks to their efforts, it was added to the National Parks Service’s National Register of Historic Places in October 1974. Restoration efforts were under way when the house burned only one month after being listed. But the adjacent workshop where Sellers had built his wind tunnel in 1903 was undamaged by the fire, so Peck then directed his efforts toward the preservation of that building.

Contacts with the Kentucky Parks Department and several aviation museums generated interest, but no firm commitments. Through the Smithsonian Institution, Peck was eventually directed to the New England Air Museum (NEAM) in Windsor Locks, CT. In the summer of 1976, a NEAM crew carefully dismantled the workshop and moved it, along with a number of smaller artifacts, to Connecticut for eventual display. Their plans called for reassembling the entire building inside the museum, and Peck worked with the museum’s curator to design the exhibit.

The disassembled workshop was still in storage, inside a cargo aircraft on outdoor static display, when the museum was heavily damaged by a tornado in 1979. The cargo aircraft was torn apart, and much of the dismantled Sellers workshop was literally scattered to the winds. With all of NEAM’s efforts necessarily directed to recovering from the damage done by the tornado, plans for the Sellers exhibit languished. The surviving material was transferred to the Aviation Museum of Kentucky in the early 1990s.

In the course of approximately 20 years of research on Matthew Sellers, Edward Peck meticulously assembled a large collection of photos, documents, and correspondence, intending to write a definitive biography. While the copies of the individual photos and documents Peck collected are probably not unique, this material is quite likely the largest collection of material on Sellers in any one place. When Peck died in 1998—the biography, unfortunately, still unwritten—the collection passed to his long-time friend and fellow aviation historian Charles W. Arrington of Louisville, who has since donated it to the AMK.

Solomon Lee Van Meter Jr. (1888-1937)

Solomon Lee Van Meter Jr. In 1483, in Milan, Italy, Leonardo da Vinci sketched a device that would enable a man “to throw himself down from any great height without sustaining any injury.” In the centuries that followed, many people offered designs for making this imagined device a reality, with varying degrees of success. But in 1910, in Lexington, KY, Solomon Van Meter had an insight while dreaming in front of the fire that would finally bring da Vinci’s idea to life: the first practical backpack parachute.

Solomon Lee Van Meter Jr. was born on April 8, 1888 on a farm near Lexington. He was educated at Miss Collier’s Private School, at Transylvania University, at the University of Iowa, and in England at Oxford University’s Exeter College.

In 1910, a fatal airplane crash caught the young man’s attention. The pilot of the slowly descending disabled craft apparently had climbed onto the wing to attempt repairs. Parachutes, rare in those days, were attached to the plane itself and probably wouldn’t have helped. Many pilots had died when their chutes became entangled with the very machines they were trying to escape. But as he pondered the death of this particular pilot, Van Meter wondered whether a parachute could be folded and packed for the pilot to wear. He began working on the question, and by the following year had completed his invention.

His self-contained device featured a revolutionary quick-release mechanism—the ripcord—that allowed a falling aviator to expand the canopy only when safely away from the disabled aircraft. In 1916, based on drawings and models, Van Meter was granted two patents on “inventions for saving the lives of aviators by the use of parachutes.”

Van Meter joined the Army in 1917 and became one of only three members of his class to be commissioned a first lieutenant in the Corps of Aviation. At Kelly Field in Texas, his instructor wrote four words any pilot would want in his Air Corps logbook: “Cool, consistent, good judgment.”

Classified a pursuit pilot, Van Meter was assigned to the experimental section of the engineering department. At Wright Field in 1918, a model of his invention was built and successfully tested. The Army expropriated his patents, and the Irving Air Chute Company began building parachutes for the government. Lt. Van Meter was assigned to McCook Field in Dayton, OH to continue work on his invention.

The major in charge of the project at McCook hoped to obtain a new patent by improving on the original Van Meter design. He knew that Van Meter already held the patents for a manually opened parachute pack, so he prevented the lieutenant from doing any parachute work. The major’s claims were rejected when Van Meter’s Patent Office records were introduced as evidence in a lawsuit, Van Meter v. US, initiated by Van Meter to recover the rights to his invention.

Although he had been a civilian when he invented the pack parachute, Van Meter was now a member of the military and was barred from suing the government. Doing all his own legal work, he managed to obtain an act of Congress that allowed him to file the lawsuit. He was successful, and the courts awarded him compensation for parachutes already built under the expropriated patents as well as fees for future patent use.

At West Point on June 14, 1926, Lt. Van Meter made a demonstration jump to prove the workability of his original parachute, in part to validate his original patent claim. When Lois, his wife of two years, returned home that day, she found her husband in the bath, soaking a sprained ankle while the phone rang off the hook with congratulations from his fellow officers. Only then did Van Meter realize that he had proven his invention. The self-contained, manually opened device truly was “the Van Meter parachute.”

An outstanding aviator as well as an accomplished inventor, Van Meter was a bomber pilot before bombers even existed. When General Billy Mitchell wanted to prove that bombs dropped from an airplane could sink a warship, Van Meter piloted one of the planes. He scored a direct hit, sinking a captured German destroyer by dropping a bomb right down the stack.

In addition to the self-contained parachute, Van Meter invented what later became the ejection seat. Another invention was a device to separate the crew cabin from an endangered plane and safely parachute it down. The F-111 and other aircraft have used a similar method of crew rescue.

Van Meter eventually retired from the military with the rank of captain, returning with his family to Lexington. He died there at the age of 49, leaving his wife and three children, with a fourth on the way.

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