by Tom Thompson-
The Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum is another of the small museums in the St. Louis area that most people have never heard of. The museum is located on the grounds of the St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, IL. I visited the museum several months ago to research a newsletter article for the Labor and Industry Museum at Belleville.
The museum is in an aircraft hanger that is itself a historical artifact. It is one of two hangers, which date to the 1930s, and are on the List of Registered Historic Places in St. Clair County. The hangers still display the original exterior artwork from the Curtis-Wright Company who built engines and aircraft here. Small aviation artifacts are displayed in one large room downstairs. Upstairs are the aviation archives and aviation artwork. The artwork is primarily of those military aircraft that were manufactured by McDonnell-Douglas Company, which was headquartered in St. Louis prior to its merger with The Boeing Company. After going through the downstairs exhibits the visitor is escorted through the hanger itself which houses aircraft and training devices, some of which are undergoing extensive restoration.
The museum and its collections suffered considerable damage and losses during the St. Louis floods of 1993. Then, they were in their original location at Spirit Airport in the Chesterfield Valley west of St. Louis. It is a tribute to the museum’s leaders and members that they were able to reestablish operations in a different location. The docent who led us through explained the various aviation eras that are represented by the artifacts. One is the early aviation era of simple instruments and wicker seats in aircraft (they have one). Another is the multiple regional airlines which were prevalent in the mid to late 20th century. Former Trans World Airline and Ozark Airline employees have provided artifacts from this era. First generation (Mercury/Gemini) space suits bring visitors into the space age. These and other “jet age” exhibits come from former McDonnell-Douglas employees. Because of the limited area, artifacts are small such as aircraft instruments and uniforms from the various eras.
On the day of my visit, I was lucky enough to speak with Mr. Chub Wheeler, age 99, about the early days of the airfield. Mr. Wheeler learned to fly here in 1934 and he and a colleague ran a flying school at the field throughout the 1930s. The price was $2 for a 15-minute lesson. When the Second World War came the Army directed him to stay at the airfield as a civilian and instruct Service pilots rather than joining the fight himself. The contractor who owned this Army flight training operation was Oliver Parks who later donated his air college to Saint Louis University.
On the whole, the Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum provides a small but broad review of aviation history. I’m sure the past loss and move have made the members concentrate more on physical restoration and display rather than a wider mission of interpretation and outreach to the public. This is evident in the limited collections and reconstruction required on the aircraft. As an aviation enthusiast, I hope that they are able to improve the infrastructure problems that are evident in the old hanger and continue to provide service to the public. Because of its location on an active airport there are always pilots stopping in talk aviation, even those who learned to fly in the 1930s. I recommend this museum to others interested in American aviation, local manufacturing history, or engineering history.