The New England Air Museum welcomed visitors Wednesday at a ceremony marking a $2 million renovation funded by United Technologies Corp., the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and the state of Connecticut.
“Do you want to climb into my airplane? Check it out? It’s pretty cool,” Tom Stevenson, an Air Force veteran and retired software engineer, called out to a young boy and his family walking through the museum.
The boy shyly demurred but couldn’t keep his eyes off the plane. “Maybe next time!” Stevenson told his family.
Stevenson is one of more than 130 volunteers with the New England Air Museum, near Bradley International Airport. Many volunteers have histories building the planes themselves at East Hartford’s Pratt & Whitney or flying in them in the military. They’re nearly as vital to the museum as are the planes they help restore and share with the next generation of air enthusiasts.
Showcasing more than 100 aircraft from early flying machines to supersonic jets, the New England Air Museum has been on the ground since 1959 and welcomes tens of thousands of visitors to see the planes every year. The $2 million renovation is the most extensive capital improvement since it opened in its current location in 1981, after a tornado in 1979 required a complete rebuild.
Now, visitors can view the jets, helicopters, and even a balloon basket from two observation mezzanines accessible by elevator or stairs, while relaxing in a new air-conditioning system and under energy-efficient LED lighting, all improvements made possible by the corporate and state support.
“All of us in the history business know we would just be books on a shelf if people didn’t come and visit us,” Jerry Roberts, the museum’s executive director, said. “We want people to know this isn’t the end. We have built a new picture frame, and now we’re going to paint a new picture. We’re going to do a better job of telling people about Connecticut’s amazing aerospace legacy.”
He noted that most of the museum’s aircraft were built in Connecticut, powered by Pratt & Whitney engines, or propelled by Hamilton propellers — and the spacesuits even have local origins, too.
“It’s no secret that our greatest need is for a highly qualified, well-trained and forward-looking workforce. The need has never been greater and, in our eyes, that starts right here in Windsor Locks,” said Randy Bumps, UTC’s senior director for sustainability and corporate responsibility. “The museum really is an incredible source of inspiration for the next generation of aerospace scientists, engineers, and advanced manufacturing professionals.”
The state announced $985,000 in bond money last February to support the renovations.
At the celebration, Gov. Daniel Malloy highlighted the future of Connecticut’s aerospace sector, with thousands of engines from Pratt & Whitney, submarines, and helicopters all in the works across the state. “This really is a reminder of the greatness of Connecticut and all the innovations we’ve made in the past and will continue to make in the future,” he said.