The Texas Air Museum
Story and photos by Jay Wischkaemper
When you think of the locations of great air museums, Slaton, Texas is probably not going to be at the top of the list. However, if Malcolm Laing and his band of volunteers at the Texas Air Museum have anything to do with it, that just might change.
The Texas Air Museum has three branches. It originated in Rio Hondo, Texas, which is close to Harlingen, home of the Confederate Air Force up until 1985. The two museums were not connected in any way other than their proximity, and with the CAF moving to Midland several years ago, even that connection is gone. Malcolm had been associated with the museum at Rio Hondo before moving to Lubbock. When he got to Lubbock, he decided that there needed to be a branch there, and set about to make it happen.
The first thing he needed was a location. His first choice was Lubbock International Airport. He approached the powers that be with his idea, and while they were open to the idea of a museum, they were unable to come to an agreement. Looking for a better deal, he approached the Abernathy airport, about 15 miles north of Lubbock. They too could provide plenty of space, but as with Lubbock, they also wanted cash. Next, he approached the city of Slaton, located about 15 miles southeast of Lubbock. Slaton has a fairly new airport, with a 3,900-foot runway and nice facilities. Its a busy field, with quite a few Ag operations as well as general aviation activity. Larry Neal sells Ag Tractor spray planes there, as well as operating the FBO (806-828-5892). There was plenty of space for a museum, and there were people smart enough to see the benefit of having one. They offered Malcolm several acres of land free of charge, and the Texas Air Museum in Slaton, Texas was born in March of 1993.
The museum is run totally by volunteers, and as such is open only on Saturday unless a special request is made. Obviously, if enough people want to see it, a volunteer will be found to open the museum during the week. All static displays are outdoors, and as such can be viewed from a distance any time.
The collection of aircraft is impressive for a museum of its young age. They include an F105 Thunder Chief, A-7 Corsair, F-4S Phantom, F-14 Tomcat, T-33, a vintage 1949 Sikorsky H-55, a Huey, and a T-2 Buckeye. Several of the aircraft are on loan from the U.S. Navy, while others have been donated. The museum is designed to be a hands-on facility, so aircraft are not roped off. The cockpit to the F-4 is open on weekends for kids of all ages to crawl in and investigate. You can sit in the seat of the H-55 or the Huey. Volunteers are always there to answer any questions.
While it is billed as an aviation museum, the museum also contains fascinating and rare items of the American military from World War I to the present. One building houses a display of military vehicles, including a 1943 Willys Jeep used by the Seabees that has a welder installed; a forward air control van used in the Korean war; an M-29 Weasel, which was at one time designed to be a replacement for the Jeep; and an M548 cargo carrier used in Desert Storm. One of the most unique exhibits, mainly because it is the only one in existence, is a Japanese type 95 75mm gun. Unique original photos from the Korean conflict line one wall of a hangar. An original Link trainer in working condition sits in one corner, and a World War I water-cooled Browning machine gun greets you as you walk through the door.
In addition to the indoor exhibits and static displays, there are also several flying aircraft. A Taylorcraft BC-12D is used to transition museum pilots into tail wheel flying. The T-craft is painted in the colors of the Spanish Civil War. After a checkout in the Taylorcraft, pilots can earn the right to fly some of the other aircraft, for a fee. Other flyable aircraft include two AT-19 Stinson Reliants, an L-17 Navion, and a PT 17 Stearman. Another of the museums flyable aircraft is rather unique. Its billed as a KI-51 Sonia (replica), which was an aircraft used by the Japanese Army Air Force. Yes, there is a difference. There was the Japanese Naval Air Force, and the Japanese Army Air Force. The Sonia was used in various roles, from reconnaissance to dive-bombing. Two Sonias sank the USS Bullhead, an American sub, during the war. The plane is so maneuverable that it is reported to have outmaneuvered two P38s until the 38s ran out of ammo. The museums Sonia is actually a 1965 Funk Model 23, of which only 12 were produced, primarily as crop dusting trainers. The resemblance of the Funk to the Sonia is remarkable, and very little modification was needed to create the replica. The museum has taken possession of four of the remaining Funks, and is doing the same makeover job on them. The plan is to create an entire squadron of Sonias.
The museum is operated by a cadre of 125 volunteers, with about 10 to 20 showing up on any given Saturday. Among those are four A&Ps that maintain the fleet, and complete the restoration of aircraft. Current projects under construction include a T-6G, a NA-64, and eventually a Bf109F. All the parts are there for the 109. Its just a matter of putting them together.
Another of the museums unique aircraft is a DH104 DeHavilland Dove. This mini-airliner needs a lot of TLC, including being totally rewired. This places it somewhat low on the priority list due to the amount of time and effort required, but it could fly again, and hopefully someday will.
A British-built Beagle, looking like a Cessna 310 on steroids, is also currently part of the museum collection. A member of the museum owns it. Its his when he wants it, but for now, the public can view this small piece of military history.
The museum also has a program that allows members to obtain a pilots license at a greatly discounted price. Part of the flying fleet is a vintage Cessna 150. Members are allowed to use this airplane for a current rate of $40.00 per hour, and Malcolm does the instructing for an additional $20.00, which is a bargain by any standard. After a member obtains his private certificate, he is allowed to transition directly from the 150 to the Taylorcraft, and eventually to other museum aircraft as museum instructors deem them qualified.
While the museum is impressive as-is, there are certainly no plans to slow down progress. There are already more aircraft than there is hangar space, so the next priority is to complete the next hangar, which is currently under construction. The next aircraft to arrive for the static display will be an F101, and the museum volunteers are always on the lookout for more. Future expansion plans for flyable aircraft include the addition of a fighter, probably a cheap one (in relative terms) such as a P39 or P40. The museum would also like to find and restore a light bomber.
This museum is truly a labor of love for those involved in it. There are no paid employees. Since most people in the area dont even realize the museum exists, or if they do, do not realize the extent and quality of its collection, visitors are sparse. On a good Saturday, 25 or 30 people will come through the doors. Hardly enough revenue at $4.00 per head to pay the light bill. While it would be nice to have more people come through to appreciate the collection, the people who keep the planes flying and man the displays do it because airplanes are in their blood, and they would do it even if no one ever came. The museum relies on contributions from individuals, companies, and foundations to keep the doors open. Dues are modest. A life membership is a one-time $200 contribution. A corporate membership runs $1,000.
Each year, on a weekend before Memorial Day (normally Armed Forces Day), the museum sponsors an air show. Last year, approximately 4,500 people attended. In addition to its own collection, the museum is able to attract other warbirds from other individuals and museums. Howard Pardue brought his Sea Fury last year. The CAF provided a Corsair and a P-40. Previous years have seen a variety of warbirds flying past the crowds. Its always a well-run operation, and an excellent air show. This years South Plains Air Show is scheduled for Saturday, May 18, 2002, call (806) 828-4664 for more information. Plans are also being explored for a fly-in some time during the year to help showcase the museums collection.
Volunteers can always be put to work. One thing that museum needs right now is someone to design an interactive web site, and someone to host it, cheap. They could also use someone with a few extra ten thousand-dollar bills lying around who would be interested in helping build a hangar.
So the next time youre looking for someplace new to fly on a weekend, come and visit the folks at Slaton. Youll find a friendly bunch of airplane nuts ready to show you around and take you in, and if youd like a wrench or a broom, they can probably provide that as well.
Making a Weekend of it
If youd like to visit the Texas Air Museum, plan on a weekend in scenic Lubbock. Flying in just to see the museum is an excellent day trip if youre not too far away. The Slaton airport is approximately 15 miles southeast of Lubbock International, and while it has an excellent runway and fuel, ground transportation is limited. If all youre seeing is the museum, thats not a problem. If you want to see some of the other sights around Lubbock, a better option is to fly into Lubbock International where all the major car rental agencies are represented and excellent weekend rates are available. Lubbock Aero is the main FBO, and courtesy cars are available (806- 747-5101).
With transportation available if Lubbock, the lodging and food choices are unlimited. The La Quinta hotel, Medical Center (806-792-0065) offers a discount for Texas Air Museum visitors as does Advantage RentA-Car (800-777-5500, group discount code 153314). All the other major restaurant and hotel chains are represented, and there are even a few local hot spots. The 50 Yard Line restaurant is a legendary steakhouse. If you want something a bit more rustic, ask for directions to Cagles Steak House, located in the country, close to the former Reese AFB. There are also a number of small restaurants in Slaton, one of which is the Slaton Bakery, which serves a wonderful deli lunch.
If youre planning a visit, you might want to wait until this summer to take advantage of the opportunity to view rare Vatican art that will be on display at the Museum of Texas Tech from June 2 to September 15. You can find details at www.vaticanexhibit.org. Another aviation museum, currently located at Terrell, Texas, is moving to Lubbock and is expected open there in about a year. Lubbock was the location of most of the glider pilot training during W.W.II. If youre into gliding, hop 30 miles northwest to Littlefield where the sky is full of sailplanes nearly every appropriate weekend. Rides are available.
If youre into college hoops, check the schedule for when Bobby Knights Red Raiders will be in town, but dont count on a good seat. Those were sold months ago. General admission tickets are usually available. Marsha Sharps womens team is a consistent top 20 team as well, so the best in college basketball is here, often on weekends.
This part of Texas may be the safest place in the world to fly; the entire area is one gigantic landing field. Generally, the weather is excellent, but brush up on your crosswind technique. So come and enjoy the Texas Air Museum, and everything else Lubbock has to offer.
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