New Jersey’s Aviation Hall of Fame and Museum – Celebrating 50 years of Flight

By Henry M. Holden    

 

The late Pat Reilly surrounded by inductee’s plaques. Reilly was a key figure in the formation and creation of the AHOF. (Credit Henry M. Holden)

In the first decades of aviation, Teterboro Airport, in Bergen County, was the center of development and record setting flights. Teterboro Airport is the oldest operating airport in the Tri-State Region.

In the 1920s and 1930s, record-setting flights became a national obsession, and many of the flights originated or terminated at Teterboro Airport. 

Many famous pilots flew out of Teterboro including Charles and Ann Morrow Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, and Clarence Chamberlain, the second man to fly non-stop across the Atlantic were early users of the airport. 

Later, they were followed by former navy pilot Arthur Godfrey, and astronauts Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the Moon), Walter Schirra, and Kathryn Sullivan, the first woman to walk in space, and Janis Blackburn, the first woman in the world to be a flying crew member on the Airbus A-300, along with others became the modern-day aviation pioneers. 

The museum displays historic aircraft, space equipment, artifacts, photographs, fine art and an aircraft model collection. The library has more than 4,000 volumes and a collection of aviation videos. 

A party held on August 14, 1970, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the first landing at Teterboro Airport. Donald Borg, publisher of New Jersey’s largest evening newspaper, The Bergen Evening Record, and others nostalgically discussed events that had taken place at the airport. It was soon evident that the airport held exclusive historical importance. The group agreed to preserve the history, and the seeds of the Aviation Hall of Fame and Museum (AHOF) were planted.

Ten New Jersey aviators were selected to be the first inductees with H. V. “Pat” Reilly becoming the executive vice president and director. By Laws, restricted inductee selections to be limited to four per year. This has been waived only occasionally.

The first induction dinner saw 600 guests attending. Television personality Arthur Godfrey was the guest speaker.

In 1939, the Goodyear blimp Mayflower made daily sightseeing flights over the New York City World’s Fair. In 1952,

The author’s grandchildren in Bell AH-1S ‘Cobra’ attack helicopter during an Open Cockpit Day. (Credit Henry M. Holden)

Arthur Godfrey buzzed the control tower while taking off in his DC-3. As a result, his pilot’s license was suspended for a time.

The museum contains a number of unique exhibits including the rocket engine that propelled the X-15 to a blistering speed of Mach 6.7 (4,520 mph), a record that still stands for winged aircraft. An X-15 also topped the altitude goal of 250,000 feet by nearly 19 miles.

“The airplanes on display include a Martin 2-0-2 airliner, which is open to the public, a Bell-47, and the only known Lockheed 402-2 Bushmaster in existence, which stands at the entrance to the museum,” said Ralph Villecca, Executive Director of the museum.

“We also have a Bell AH-1S ‘Cobra’ attack helicopter, a Coast Guard CH-53 helicopter, and a number of other aircraft.”

The Aviation Hall of Fame and Museum was originally located in the first control tower that opened in 1948.  When the tower was retired in 1975, it became the first home of the Aviation Hall of Fame and Museum in New Jersey. It was the first state aviation museum in the country, and it was incorporated as a nonprofit educational organization on April 6, 1972. 

There were one hundred steps from the field level to the top of the tower. The hall of fame occupied the top three floors. This author remembers the climb to the top. For those who wanted to go slowly, there were aviation photos on the walls that visitors could enjoy during their hike to the top. Some of the electronics were disabled and left in place for the youngsters to simulate a controller. The radio exchanges between pilots and controllers remained active and broadcast for the visitors.

The first museum reached capacity when it held about 1,000 artifacts. “People came to give me all kinds of aviation memorabilia,” said the late Pat Reilly.But I had no place left to put them. I ran out of room.”

The museum has been cited as One of the 10 Best Museums in the state of New Jersey,” and there are several one-of-a kind or last of a kind aircraft. “We have the last Martin 2-0-2, in world, and the cockpit and one row of first class seats of a TWA 880,” said Villecca. “We have flight simulators, and relics of ill-fated flights such as the Hindenburg dirigible that was destroyed by fire in Lakehurst in 1937.” 

Artifacts of the Hindenburg, can be found on display. The newsreel film does not do justice to the size of the Hindenburg. The display documents the tragedy, and illustrations show that this massive airship was almost the size of the Queen Mary ocean liner.

“Many adults are fascinated by the piece of airframe we have on display,” said Villecca “People go up to it and touch it.”

“We have the cockpit of an F-111 fighter jet and many people are fascinated by its appearance.  We also have the first American hovercraft invented by Charles Fletcher on display. The Sikorsky HH-52 Coast Guard 1455 rescue helicopter which was instrumental in the Marial Cuban boatlift, now stands at the entrance to the museum. One of our most popular exhibits among the children and parents is the ‘Little Cut Up.’ We took parts from several airplanes and put them together for the youngsters to operate the manual controls.”  

When the new Aviation Hall of Fame and Museum opened in 1983, there was room for the museum’s collection, but it was soon overloaded with memorabilia, and artifacts. Plans were made for a building extension. However, the extension was delayed by the Department of Environmental Protection for three years until they determined the extension would not do damage to nearby wetlands.

“The focus of the AHOF is on events and people who contributed to New Jersey’s aviation heritage,” said Villecca. “Today, there are 192 men and women inductees in the hall of fame, including six New Jersey-born astronauts, and fifteen war aces.”

Air Force Colonel Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin Jr., a resident of Montclair, and AHOF inductee was a Korean War fighter pilot, and Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo XI. He followed Neil Armstrong onto the surface of the moon in 1969. 

Navy Captain Walter M. Schirra, Jr, of Hackensack, was one of the nation’s original seven astronauts, and the only person to have flown in each of the three generations of U.S. spacecraft – Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. 

To qualify for induction, the candidate must be from New Jersey or must have significant aviation ties to New Jersey. The achievements of the candidate must be followed by an ongoing commitment to advance aviation.

The museum has been designated as an educational center so there is probably something for everyone to enjoy and learn about. For more information see www.njahof.org  or phone 201-288-6344. 

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