If you go
• What: Pearson Air Museum.
• Where: 1115 E. Fifth St., Vancouver.
• Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
• Cost: $7 adults, $5 seniors and students, free for children younger than 6.
• Information: http://www.fortvan.org/pages/pearson-air-museum or 360-816-6230.
Pearson Field is one of the oldest continually operating airfields in the United States.
In 1905, Lincoln Beachey piloted the dirigible Gelatine to the Vancouver Barracks in the first aerial crossing of the Columbia River. In 1911, the first airplane landed at the field.
The museum’s hangar was built in 1918 by the Army, which moved it to its present location in 1924. It is the nation’s oldest wooden structure still used to house aircraft.
During World War I, a spruce mill was established for mass production of wood components for military aircraft. The mill played an important role in the modernization of America’s early aircraft industry. From 1923 to 1941, Pearson was home to the U.S. Army Air Service, a precursor to the Air Force, and many key events during the “Golden Age of Flight.” One of its first commanders, Lt. Oakley Kelly, made the first nonstop transcontinental flight in 1923.
On June 20, 1937, three Soviet airmen made the first flight over the North Pole and landed unexpectedly at Pearson Field. Pilot Valery Chkalov, co-pilot Georgiy Raidukov and navigator Alexander Belyakov gained worldwide notoriety for the achievement, which will be the subject of several 75-year anniversary celebrations this summer.
About two dozen middle-school students lined up outside the hangar at Pearson Air Museum on a partially sunny Friday afternoon.
Shouts of “dude” and “watch this” peppered the air as the kids held up gliders made from Styrofoam plates, readying themselves to see who could earn bragging rights by flying theirs farthest.
“Oh my God, look how far it went,” one student gasped as he watched his plane drift past the others.
“Mine went backwards,” another giggled.
The competition was short-lived, as the scene quickly deteriorated into the chaos of happy kids running across the grass to chase and relaunch their gliders.
And that’s exactly what the kids are supposed to do, said Laureano Mier, museum manager and education programs coordinator.
“Everybody thinks when you hear the word ‘museum,’ it’s going to be boring, but it doesn’t have to be,” Mier said. “We try to make it very interactive and hands-on. It’s got to be engaging. You can’t bring kids to a museum and have it be static.”
The best way to get both kids and adults excited about aviation and local history is to let them experience the discovery process themselves, and the museum has been working to launch more hands-on displays that do that, he said.
One new exhibit looks sort of like a big wooden dresser with a fan built into the top. It’s a “vertical wind tunnel” that demonstrates how the shape of a wing catches the air, lifting the aircraft.
Visitors twist paper into various propeller-like shapes and can launch them to see which flies the highest. Joe Blair, a member of Pearson Field Advocates for General Aviation, sponsored the $2,500 exhibit, which was built by volunteers.
“Everybody loves it,” Mier said. “You should see the kids just launching things over and over.”
Mason Schell, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, said the exhibit was one of his favorite parts of the tour.
“That was pretty cool,” he said. “This place is pretty hands-on, which is nice for kids. You get to learn a lot of stuff. Like I learned the first plane to fly over the Arctic landed here.”
The museum also has a bank of about 15 flight simulators in an exhibit that’s open to the public on Saturdays. Mason’s school group didn’t get to use one during his trip, but he said he’s eager to come back and check them out.
“I heard those were very cool,” he said. “Everything about flight piques my interest. We also learned there’s four components of flight -- thrust, drag, gravity and lift.”
Tom Schell, Mason’s father, said he was thrilled to see his son’s enthusiasm.
“I think this is a really good place to get information about flying,” Schell said. “The volunteers have been great about giving the right amount of information -- not too much, not too little.”
Of course, the main exhibit full of real airplanes -- whether they’re interactive or not -- is pretty darned cool, too, said Gavin McLoone, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at Thomas Jefferson.
“I like how airplanes are able to fly even if they’re so heavy,” Gavin said. “My favorite is the B17 (World War II era bomber). They’re nicknamed the fortress in the sky. They can drop bombs, they have guns, they can pretty much do everything.”
For smaller children, the museum has several wooden airplane models to climb on or sit in.
Student and tour groups also get to learn about flight through a “discover cart,” which was introduced by Mier, who’s been at the museum for about a year.
The cart has a selection of toys, models and actual plane parts that help illustrate the gradual discovery of the airfoil shape of an airplane wing and why it’s so critical to flight.
“It gives the kids a basic 101 of flight, but it uses toys,” Mier said. “Kids from an early age know that things with wings fly, and there’s something about the shape of a wing that makes things fly.”
Toys make it easier for them to understand and figure out how animal wings inspired aircraft wings, he said.
Kids first differentiate several plastic animals into things that can fly and things that can’t. After that, they look at an airfoil-shaped portion of a model airplane wing.
“It’s the magic shape that makes airplanes fly,” Mier said. “It draws wings up by moving air at two speeds. Air moves more slowly over the (more round) top, and more quickly across the flat bottom.”
Other exhibits include an air fan, where visitors can feel the effect of wind drag on a plane wing when it’s positioned in various directions, a remote controlled model plane and -- of course -- several historic airplanes that museum volunteers like to wheel outside the hangar on sunny days.
“On a Saturday, if the weather’s nice, with families out here and the planes rolled out -- everybody gets so excited,” Mier said.