Excitement taking off for Discovery exhibit
Posted: Wednesday, June 16, 2010 9:05 pm
Special Features Editor
Excitement will be “sky high” Tuesday at Everett-Stewart Regional Airport just east of Union City. That’s when the public can “discover” the architect’s final plans for Discovery Park of America’s centerpiece building, Discovery Center, and get an up-close and truly personal look at one of the chief exhibits — a Stearman plane like the ones in use at the airport when it was known locally as Embry-Riddle Field and was a World War II pilot training school.
Discovery Park of America is the education-entertainment-tourism complex planned for the 50-acre site between Everett Boulevard and the under-construction I-69. The multi-million dollar project, which is across the highway from Union City Second Baptist Church, is being underwritten, primarily, by the Robert E. and Jenny D. Kirkland Foundation and is scheduled for a grand opening in the fall of 2012.
New architects Louis Sirianni and Brad Nederhoff of Verner Johnson Museum Architects and Planners of Boston will unveil their design and plans for the 100,000-square-feet Discovery Center, where indoor exhibits will be housed, at the 9:30 a.m. event at the airport. The plans take into account some initial groundwork already done at the site and incorporate the Kirklands’ desire for a tower feature that will attract attention not only locally but from tourists utilizing the new superhighway that will be coming through the area. Also on hand to show their work and respond to questions from those attending will be landscape designers from Richie Smith Associates of Memphis, who will be working with the extensive gardens and the Historic Farm and Town Center component of the project.
Thinc Design of New York will have representatives on hand, as well, to showcase their efforts, already in progress, on presenting the numerous exhibits planned for the project.
Among those exciting exhibits will be the Stearman.
Former cadets, World War II veterans in the area and former civilian employees at Embry-Riddle Field during the days when it trained cadets to put their skills to work in the skies around the world have been invited to attend and share their memories of life that changed dramatically with America’s entry into the war.
The public is encouraged to join them and get a first-hand look at one of the major exhibits and see and hear details about Discovery Park of America’s exciting goals and plans.
“Discovery Park of America has been in the dream stage for many months now, with a great deal of work going on in imaginative and highly creative minds. So much of the effort has been ‘behind the scenes,’ but now, we’re ready to see some tangible results,” says Kirkland.
“Jenny and I are excited,” he continues, “about the plans that will be unveiled and we want to share it with everyone — both those who have had faith in the project from the beginning and those who may have thought it was wishful thinking. In reality, we all have something to celebrate — because Discovery Park of America is a reality and it will be, we believe, a source of pride for our community and a showplace for the wonders of both our own special corner of the world and the wide universe beyond. It’s time to let the fun begin and the party starts Tuesday. This is your invitation.”
The official program is planned for about 35 minutes, with the plane making a grand entrance from the skies to the runway at about 10 a.m.
Local pilot Mike Rinker recently flew the plane — by sight — from Virginia, where it was located and purchased by the Military History Committee of Discovery Park of America. It will be stored locally until it is ready to be hoisted into position above the heads of those on the museum’s ground floor.
Visitors to DPA can get looks from the bottom and the top, since the plane will be suspended from an upper level of the museum and fans of flight can view it from the building’s multiple floors.
But on Tuesday, those attending the event can not only see it, they can touch it.
“Hugh Wade (a member of the DPA Military History Committee) found the plane. It had been used at Pyote, Texas, Army Air Field in World War II to train pilots, and it is just like the ones that were flown by cadets at Embry-Riddle Field. It was strictly a trainer,” says Rinker.
The local pilot was accompanied on his flight back to Tennessee by his son, Colton, who handled the plane himself part of the way. When it came to landing, however, the elder Rinker took control. Today’s modern runways are a challenge for the plane, which was built to get off the ground and come back down again onto a grass surface.
Rinker verified the plane’s suitability when he arrived in Virginia and brought it safely in to its new home in Tennessee, where it is sure to be a delight to those attending the Tuesday session and to future crowds at DPA.
A little history, please
Riddle-McKay Aviation School of Florida, in a private contract with the U.S. government, built and operated the local air base, now known as Everett-Stewart Regional Airport, where 19 classes of cadets learned to fly over a two-year period during the middle of World War II, beginning in July 1942. The company provided training in several other locations, with 26,000 pilots on its books as students.
The flight instructors were civilians and employees who did a variety of other jobs at the field also came from the non-military ranks. The cadets learning their war-time trade were, in fact, usually the only military faces at the air fields where the nation was calling on the high-flying patriotism, skill and commitment of its young men to help turn the tide of war.
The Stearman saw service first at the training fields, including the former Embry-Riddle in Obion County, but after a time most of these were replaced by part-plywood monoplanes with in-line Ranger air-cooled engines known as Fairchild PT-19s. These were, in time, modified to use a radial engine and were then designated PT-23s.
In the spirit that this area’s seniors say came to be a part of the win-the-war effort, landowners in the farming community between Union City and Martin quickly agreed to sell part of their acreage so Embry-Riddle Airfield could be built and training for vital pilots could get under way.
Runways were unpaved on the flight school’s 870 acres. Two metal hangars, which are still in operation at the airport, boasted paved areas in front, however.
In addition, there was a wooden flight tower (since replaced by the present terminal building), barracks for the cadets, an administrative building, a dining hall and several maintenance shops.
Before the site outlived its military usefulness, two more wooden hangars, a link trainer building and additional barracks were built, according to information compiled by former Obion County historian and local writer Rebel C. Forrester.
At the close of the war, Embry-Riddle Field was presented to Obion County and its name was changed to Tom Stewart Field, in honor of the U.S. senator.
In time, Congressman Robert A. “Fats” Everett — a one-time assistant to the senator and then a legislator in his own right — had his last name added to the designation.
Today, the one-time training ground is a thriving and growing regional airport known as Everett-Stewart Regional Airport. It gained that designation in 2007 when it became jointly operated by Obion and Weakley counties.
In April, the airport broke ground for a major runway extension, bringing its runway capacity to 6,500 feet and making it “one of the longest runways of general aviation airports,” according to Tennessee Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely.
The Stearman was a two-seater biplane with wooden wings covered by fabric and a fuselage that boasted a welded steel framework with another fabric “skin.” The planes had a range of just a little over 500 miles and a top speed of 124 mph.
Pilots said the bird was rugged and easy to fly and was “forgiving” of new-pilot nerves and mistakes. More than 10,000 of the vessels were put into service by the close of the war and at least 1,000 of them are still being flown world-wide.
Organizers hope several local citizens with a connection to the airfield when it served as a flight training center, as well as World War II veterans and others with “flighty” stories to tell, such as Doris Tanner, who was a WASP during the war, will be on hand Tuesday to share their stories first-hand.
A half dozen of them have already had their memories recorded in video-taped segments that will be featured in the Military History section of Discovery Park of America.
Unveiling the future
In addition to the excitement generated by the PT-Stearman’s arrival, those present at the airfield will be the first area citizens — with the exception of Discovery Park of America’s board of directors — to see the plans for the project. Photos of the plans will be featured in Tuesday’s edition of The Messenger and will then be on display at the Obion County Public Library.
Groundwork at DPA will begin toward the end of summer and those efforts will include alteration of the terrain to make it possible to showcase the actual working grist mill, several dramatic water features and beautiful garden areas. The grist mill was purchased in Sevierville by the DPA Historic Farm and Town Center Committee and transported to this area, where it is in storage. A story and photos detailing the effort will be published in The Messenger soon.
Many other items are in safe-keeping — both at the Obion County Museum and in special storage units, according to chairmen of the multiple volunteer committees that are planning what will be featured at DPA.
During the construction phase, committees continue to meet and acquire items for their sections of the museum and discuss the best way to showcase their dreams with the exhibit planners and architects.
DPA’s themed sections will include:
• Alternative Energy
• Gardens and Grounds
• Enlightenment (with a variety of interests covered)
• Children’s Exploration
• Military History
• Native American
• Natural History
• Historic Farm Center and Town Center
• Regional History
• Science and Space
• Temporary Exhibits (traveling exhibits of Smithsonian quality)
• Transportation History
In addition, volunteer committees are also engaged in planning the food service portion of DPA and the gift shop, as well as a host of other necessary services that will help the project become a reality.
For more information about Discovery Park of America or Tuesday’s event, call the Obion County Chamber of Commerce at 885-0211.
Mrs. Caudle may be contacted at glendacaudle @ucmessenger.com.
Published in The Messenger 6.16.10