Exhibit at Seward’s new National Guard Museum salutes century of aviation in Nebraska
Its tough to imagine any sane person climbing aboard a double winged, wood, metal and canvas contraption like the one hanging from the ceiling of the new Nebraska National Guard Museum in Seward.
But 100 years ago, Capt. Ralph McMillen of the Nebraska National Guard was brave enough to sit fully exposed in a rickety looking wooden chair, right in front of the engine and propeller that pushed the airplane a 1913 Curtiss Model D Pusher at 50 mph. He steered it with a wheel and maneuvered its newfangled ailerons with his hips and shoulders to lift it up and down.
McMillen died Sept. 2, 1916, when he crashed the Curtiss Pusher while barnstorming in St. Francis, Kansas. His death, at age 27, effectively halted for a time the Nebraska National Guards experiment in military aviation.
Last week volunteers assembled a hand built replica of McMillens pioneer aircraft and hoisted it to the ceiling of the new museum.
It will serve as the centerpiece of a new exhibit celebrating 100 years of aviation in Nebraska, which is also the theme of Sewards Fourth of July parade. The town of 7,000 residents bills itself as Americas Small Town 4th of July City and attracts as many as 40,000 people each year.
This plane is really going to be symbolic of that 100 years, Meyer said.
Beginning in the 1970s the National Guard maintained a museum on the grounds of the State Fair in Lincoln. But it typically was open only during the fair.
After the fair moved to Grand Island in 2010, the National Guard Museum needed a new home. Army National Guard Armory in Seward after the quartermaster detachment that had been based in Seward since 1956 relocated, leaving the building as surplus.
The Guard spent $2.5 million to renovate the armory as a museum and dedicated it during last years Fourth of July celebration. More than 3,800 people visited the museum that weekend, even though it lacked indoor exhibits.
This year Meyer is expecting nearly twice as many people for a new dedication ceremony, this time for the aviation display and several new rooms in the front of the museum.
Weve been running so hard for the last couple of years to get the front part ready, Meyer said.
In recent weeks the museum has outfitted a classroom, and a theater with a 90 inch television and sound system. Later there will be an immersive display simulating the hedgerows of Normandy, where the Nebraska National Guards 134th Infantry Regiment fought during World War II.
For now the museums pride is the new Curtiss Pusher, which cost $75,000 and was financed through donations.
A sculptor from Durango,
Colorado, named Dave Claussen built the plane. Meyer found him after learning that Claussen had built the same type of aircraft for display at a museum in his hometown. That aircraft was modeled on a Curtiss Pusher that was flown at the Colorado New Mexico Fair in Durango in 1913.
After Meyer and the museums displays manager, Chief Master Sgt. Mark Forster, sent Claussen photos of the Nebraska National Guard plane that McMillen crashed in 1916, Claussen made an astounding discovery.
What we were looking at was not just a Curtiss Pusher, it was the very same plane, he said.
Delving more deeply into the history, he learned that McMillen had purchased the plane in San Diego for $6,000 (about $150,000 in current dollars) and in 1913 had been taking it to Nebraska by railroad in pieces.
When the train stopped in Durango, locals persuaded McMillen to stay for a while, assemble the plane and fly it at the fair.
Claussen found that building the replica Pushers was difficult because no two are exactly alike.
They kept modifying these things every time they built them, he said.
Meyers photos, along with a more detailed set of plans, helped him build a plane that is more historically accurate than his first one.
Its the best replica outside of the Smithsonian, Forster said.
McMillen was one of two pilots who purchased their own Curtiss Pushers and demonstrated them with the Nebraska National Guard in the mid 1910s. They were allowed to barnstorm at airfields across the Midwest to cover their costs.
The National Guard wasnt procuring aircraft at the time, Forster said. We were still riding horses and shooting at hilltops.
In the three years he flew the Pusher before his death, McMillen achieved several firsts. He was the first to drop a fused bomb on a target, and he was among the first to operate a camera while flying showing that aerial photography was possible and giving Nebraskans their first aerial pictures of Lincoln.
Both of the states Pushers were destroyed in crashes, though, and the type was soon made obsolete by the more advanced Curtiss JN 4 Jenny biplane that was developed during World War I. The Nebraska National Guard didnt fly aircraft again for 30 years, until after World War II.
Still, Meyer wants Nebraskans to know that their forebears were among the first to see the potential of military aviation.
We have so much aviation history, he said. The pioneering spirit in Nebraska brought people into aviation.