Veterans Day To Do: Visit the Tennessee Museum of Aviation
It’s a magnificent collection.
These huge, fierce-looking machines were meant to meet the duties of war.
For military people, past and present, the museum in Sevierville holds aviation engineering marvels.
The Tennessee Museum of Aviation houses many memories for Americans who have fought in wars to defend this country. With the Nov. 11 Veterans Day approaching it might do us all some good to take a tour at this museum in Sevierville.
Dick Fortenberry (pictured above) is such a veteran, and he loves this place so much that he volunteers to lead tours several times a week. He is unusually suited for the role, having spent a year and half flying as a gunship pilot in Vietnam, that coming after he became the world parachuting champion as a member of the famed Golden Knights U.S. Army Parachuting Team and made 1,498 jumps in his career. Walking through the spotless white hangar, Dick can point to a UH-34G helicopter like the one used in Vietnam or a Douglas F-86 Sabre, a jet he calls “one of the prettiest ever built,” or a pair of P-47D Thunderbolts and the stories flow from him like a Smoky Mountain stream.
“Those two are our pride and joy,” he says of the World War II era P-47Ds. “There are only 11 of these in the world that are still flyable and we have two of them.”
In fact, many of the restored vintage aircraft at the museum are still flyable. A visitor can tell which ones have flown recently by noticing the oil drip pans set below those aircrafts. The aviation enthusiasts I met during my visit spent time photographing the sleek planes and reading the exhibit panels in the 35,000-square-foot hanger. They had dozens of questions for the museum staff.
Dick points out the largest aircraft housed here, a Grumman HU-16 Albatross seaplane with a wing span of 96 feet. The owner occasionally flies it around East Tennessee.
“When he lands out on Douglas Lake he really draws a crowd,” Dick says.
All of the aircraft and other items here are from private collections, including a couple of MiG-21 jets from the Polish Air Force.
“We had a Polish pilot come through here one day and we picked his brain,” Dick recalls. “He said the most dangerous thing about that aircraft is right there (pointing to the front of the jet) – the loading position for the weapons. … They would load all of the ammo right there. He said when they finished firing all that ammo they were so far out of the center of gravity that they could hardly fly the airplane, because they lost all of the weight up there and got so tail heavy.”
In addition to the aircraft, the museum holds many other interesting artifacts. A flight simulator used in training is displayed next to a pair of cutout cockpits used for Hollywood movies. Dick says one was used for “In Harm’s Way” in which actor Kirk Douglas took off on a suicide mission; the other from the comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
“There is just so much to see here,” Dick says.
He points to a 30-caliber air-cooled machine gun.
“I was conducting a school tour and I had a little girl come up and pull my pants leg and ask, ‘Is that a pencil sharpener?’”
Another room is devoted to exhibits, including flight suits worn by various military personnel, displays on the wars our country has fought at least partially in the air, and tributes to some of East Tennessee’s flying legends like the late Evelyn “Mama Bird” Johnson, who with 57,635 flying hours is considered the woman with the most flying hours in the world. One wall of plaques honors all of the members of the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame. An exhibition woven throughout the other displays highlights the role of chaplains in the military.
It’s really an awesome place and a fitting tribute to the military air story.
The privately owned Tennessee Museum of Aviation is open daily; general admission is $12.75; seniors $9.75; children $6.75; children under age 6 free.
Two small museums in East Tennessee also have permanent collections dedicated to military history. The Museum of Scott County in Huntsville has an emphasis on World War II and Scott County soldiers. Artifacts from the USS Tennessee battleship reveal the significance of this survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack. A 5-foot ship model, photographs and the original bell, dated 1920, are on view. The USS Tennessee Museum is part of the museum complex on the property of Scott High School. It is open during normal school hours and on Saturday afternoons; admission is free.
The Military Memorial Museum in Crossville displays uniforms, photographs and other artifacts from the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and Iraq wars. It also features item from Camp Crossville, the German prisoner of war camp in operation during World War II. The museum is open on weekdays; admission is free.
East Tennessee offers ways to honor servicemen and women for Veterans Day. Tributes and parades are planned in communities large and small. Chattanooga holds a big tribute: the Armed Forces Day that starts at 10 a.m. on Market Street. Knoxville’s Veterans Day Parade begins at 9 a.m. at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum.
What are your plans for Veterans Day?