Remembering Doug Nelson

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Fred Johnsen (left), and Doug Nelson (middle). Courtesy photograph
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by Rebeca Reeder, Flight Test Museum

The Flight Test Museum Foundation is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Doug Nelson, founder of the Air Force Flight Test Museum.

During his tenure as museum director, Doug not only collected many of the artifacts in the museum’s archives, established the first site and Blackbird Airpark, he conceived, designed and oversaw the construction of Century Circle at the Edwards Air Force Base West Gate including the acquisition of the YC-15 prototype on display there.

Former Museum Director, Fred Johnson, shared the following on our behalf.

The Foundation sends its most sincere condolences to Doug’s widow, Ilah. We will never forget him.

“When I was involved in the creation of the McChord Air Museum at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., in the early 1980s, I got to know Doug Nelson at museum meetings and conferences. Three things about Doug stood out: he had the savvy sensibility of a retired Air Force senior NCO, he had a laser focus and drive regarding what he wanted to collect for the Flight Test Museum, and he had a broad sense of humor that he was never shy about using.

Maj. Gen. Curtis Bedke, then Air Force Flight Test Center commander, welcomes attendees to the new Century Circle display during the its opening ceremony at the West Gate on Rosamond Boulevard on Aug. 28, 2007. Doug Nelson is seated at left. Courtesy photograph

“A decade later, I was one of the historians at Edwards as Doug was establishing the first storefront museum there. I had opportunities to work with him on exhibits and signage, and quickly came to appreciate his craft and artistic sensibilities.

“In 1997, Doug and I were part of the team that created the X-1 exhibit for the 50th anniversary of supersonic flight and took it on the road to many venues. It generally fell to Doug and me to uncrate and assemble the heavy full-size X-1 mock-up, and then to take it apart and crate it for the next show. That’s where I saw a mechanically adept side of Doug, and a relentless drive to see the job through as we overcame inevitable bumps in the road.

“After hours of laboring on the X-1, sometimes confined inside its hot interior as we bolted the fuselage sections together, Doug would regale the rest of the team with good-bad jokes and occasional improvisational sketches from movies like “Young Frankenstein”, and various Monty Python epithets.

“Yet another decade passed, and I had the opportunity to succeed Doug as director of the Flight Test Museum at Edwards in late 2007 upon his retirement. There is an arc to the development of a museum, and the follow-on director can be tasked with a different slice of the pie than the first director’s marching order. As I worked with the collection of aircraft and artifacts that Doug had collected, it was evident he had the eye and the vision and the drive to secure one-of-a-kind test aircraft in the 1980s that would be irretrievably lost later.

“Doug had a not-so-secret weapon in his museum efforts — his wife Ilah worked tirelessly with him, only occasionally rolling her eyes at a corny joke. They made a great team.

Doug and wife, Ilah, at the Balls 8 turnover event. Courtesy photograph

“Doug Nelson’s legacy at the Flight Test Museum in the Antelope Valley is huge. The world-class collection that is the core of the museum owes its existence to Doug Nelson’s persistence against daunting odds. Even if visitors to the museum may not realize it, they will forever be the beneficiaries of what Doug Nelson did to create the museum from scratch. I stand in awe of what Doug accomplished.”

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