POSTCARDS FROM FLORIDA

History in the air in Lakeland

In the era of the International Space Station, there's still something humbling about looking at news reports of Charles Lindbergh's solo, nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean from New York to Paris in 1927.

Lindbergh is among the legendary aviation pioneers honored at the Florida Air Museum in Lakeland, which touts itself as the state's official aviation museum and education center.

Compared with its aviation-minded competition at Fantasy of Flight, roughly 15 miles east on Interstate 4, the Florida Air Museum (sun-n-fun.org/museum) is part of a no-frills collection of industrial buildings at the Sun 'n Fun aviation education complex at Lakeland's Linder Regional Airport.

Sun 'n Fun, of course, is best known for hosting thousands of aviators and air-show enthusiasts at its annual International Fly-In and Expo, slated next for April 1-6.

At the Florida Air Museum, there's no theatrically trained host in vintage Flying Ace gear to greet visitors, no daily air-show demonstrations or in-house cafeteria. On the other hand, its $10 admission is about one-third the entry fee at Fantasy of Flight and is a bargain for anyone interested in seeing the faces, engines, flight suits and memorabilia of American pioneers, several with Florida connections.

Along one wall are portraits of the members of the Florida Aviation Hall of Fame. Honorees include Air Force Col. Joe Kittinger, familiar to longtime Orlando residents as head of flight operations for Rosie O'Grady's Flying Circus at the now-defunct Church Street Station entertainment complex. A plaque salutes his feat of breaking the sound barrier by parachuting from 102,800 feet in 1960.

I thought about my father, a lifelong employee of Eastern Airlines, when I looked at photos of World War I flying ace (and Eastern founder) Eddie Rickenbacker. And Glenn Curtiss, father of naval aviation, still has a street named after him in my hometown of Miami Springs, the town he founded in 1926.

Another exhibit looks at business magnate Howard Hughes. His quest to build the world's largest flying boat, the Spruce Goose, is recalled with models, an authentic engine and flight suits. Hughes only kept it aloft for 70 feet in its lone flight in 1947, but here his imagination still soars.

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