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Flight Test Museum Foundation seeks to do STEM right

By Larry Grooms, special to Aerotech News and Review
PALMDALE, Calif. — The Aerospace Valley’s Flight Test Museum Foundation is staking its claim to receive an estimated $1.2 million in assets expected to be salvaged from the discredited and shuttered AERO Institute in Palmdale.

In response to an inquiry from Aerotech News and Review on May 5, Art Thompson, chairman of the Flight Test Museum Foundation Board of Directors, said the volunteer-led nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization is qualified and positioned to meet and exceed educational roles tasked to AERO Institute.

Thompson, chairman of the foundation executive board and founder/CEO of Sage/Cheshire Aerospace, said the foundation is already reaching out to elected city, county, state and federal officials to declare their support for what he calls, “the appropriate place for the most significant aerospace educational location in the United States.”

Thompson said that as of midday May 6, he hadn’t received responses from Palmdale city hall officials.

Art Thompson, Chairman
Flight Test Museum Foundation (Courtesy photo)

The outreach began last week after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered the AERO Institute funds to be unfrozen, following former Palmdale mayor Jim Ledford’s guilty plea to one count of perjury. Ledford, 67, was sentenced to formal probation for two years and ordered to pay $189,800 in restitution to NASA, or a NASA-affiliated entity.

It was reported that while the L.A. County District Attorney’s office said NASA was entitled to about $1.8 million in restitution from remaining AERO Institute assets, AERO Institute attorney Russ Petti stated there was no court determination that NASA is entitled to AERO Institute funds.

After settling debts, remaining unfrozen AERO Institute assets are estimated to total about $1.2 million for donation to an “appropriate charity,” believed to be a nearby, 501(c)(3) non-profit whose mission involves aerospace education with emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

According to Thompson, the Flight Test Museum Foundation, which recently completed the foundation for the new museum building, needs about $350,000 to quickly complete the building’s shell. The project involves moving the Flight Test Museum from its 8,500-square-foot space on Edwards AFB to a 75,000-square-foot location just outside the West Gate. There will be more space for the current aircraft collection, a STEM Education Center, and easier public access.

In bold print on the Home Page of the FTHF website is the following Mission Statement:

Concrete is poured for the foundation of the future of the Air Force Flight Test Museum in June 2020. When complete, the project will include a 75,000-square-foot building just outside the Edwards Air Force Base West Gate that will include more space for the current aircraft collection, a STEM Education Center and easier public access. (Courtesy photograph)

“The mission of the Flight Test Museum Foundation is to raise funds to support the development of the Air Force Flight Test (AFFT) Museum at Edwards AFB, California and the museum’s Blackbird Airpark Annex at USAF Plant 42 in nearby Palmdale.

“The Foundation’s fund-raising efforts focus primarily on museum improvements, new construction, exhibits, aircraft acquisition and restoration, and educational programs.”

Thompson told Aerotech News and Review in a telephone interview May 6 that timing of fund distribution can provide a force multiplier in achieving multiple benefits.

Thompson said he envisions the Flight Test Museum Foundation “doing for education what Barnes & Noble bookstores did for public libraries.” Browse the bookshelves, have a cup of coffee and good conversations. Beyond that, he said, this aerospace museum would become far more than a collection of air and space hardware, by offering “a cultural center for aerospace with classrooms, lecture halls and event centers.

Just outside the Main Gate to Edwards AFB, the new museum complex already nearing completion, would provide what Thompson calls neutral ground for bringing together groups which might not otherwise be able to meet face-to-face. He specifically mentioned the opportunity for aerospace industry leaders to meet with prospective employees from colleges and universities.

Thompson said it seems ironic that people from all over the world travel to Kitty Hawk, N.C., to visit the place where one airplane flew for the first time yet can’t get in to visit the one place in America where the vast majority of first flights took place.

Edwards AFB and Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale are hallowed grounds for American aeronautics and astronautics. Pioneers, inventors, and record breakers have continued to make their way to the high desert and the unique weather and topography of the Antelope Valley since almost the dawn of flight.

The now-defunct AERO Institute in Palmdale, Calif. The Aerospace Valley’s Flight Test Historical Foundation is staking its claim to receive an estimated $1.2 million in assets expected to be salvaged from the discredited and shuttered AERO Institute. (Courtesy photograph)

They came for the cloudless days, privacy from prying eyes and the miraculously hard and flat expanse of Rogers Dry Lake. Edwards AFB and the Antelope Valley were the hub of the golden age of manned flight test popularized by Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff.”

The area saw America’s first jet flight, breaking of the sound barrier, manned rocket plane flights to the edge of space, flight of the wingless Lunar Lander Research Vehicle and the era of the space shuttle.

In the new location, the Flight Test Museum seeks to not only preserve and protect the history of flight test but also be the conduit to connect it to a new generation. The developments at Edwards have always reached for the future and the Museum seeks to do the same by inspiring the next generation with the new STEM center.

Currently, the FTHF is reopening its two portable classrooms at the Blackbird Airpark in Palmdale and awaiting privately raised funds to complete the STEM Center and classrooms in and adjacent to the new museum building.

Also coming to the Flight Test Museum is the headquarters office of The Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP). The organization provided funds and materials to create the 2,500 square foot archival space, making the Flight Test Museum become one of the leading sources for in-depth flight test history. The SETP commitment to the STEM mission and program will also be the conduit to connect with a new generation. Students of all ages will have unique access to mentors, instructors and flight test archives provided by SETP.

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