Air Museum Inspires Visitors

Admissions revenues at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum have nearly doubled to $76,000 in just six months, proving that the museum has become a viable operation, attracting increasing numbers of students and visitors, said Katheryn Pennington, executive director.

The TASM opened its new building — Sherman and Ellie Smith Hangar One Museum — on Nov. 12. The trend has been nothing short of phenomenal in attendance and revenues, she said.

The same is true at the planetarium next door, which opened May 9. Through just three weeks in May, the James E. Bertelsmeyer Planetarium, at 3624 N. 74th East Avenue, collected $17,404 in admission fees. In June, revenues topped $20,000.

Pennsylvania-based Spitz Inc. built the $3 million, 110-seat planetarium and ESky Theater. The facility is projected to serve about 90,000 people annually and be economically productive within its full year.

Since opening in May 1998, TASM has had more than 173,000 visitors. Annually, the attendance averaged 22,000 through 2004. Since opening in the new location north of Tulsa International Airport 10 months ago, the museum has seen 26,000 come through the doors.

Hangar One, named for the original Hangar One constructed for the Tulsa Municipal Airport in 1928, contains 19,000 SF of exhibit space and educational displays and sits on 17.8 acres north of TIA across from the entrance to Mohawk Park. Hangar One provides 59 percent more exhibit floor space and, with the addition of the planetarium, enables school-aged children a full-day’s field trip to all three entities, conserving a school’s transportation budget, she said.

The museum and planetarium — along with the Tulsa Zoo and Oxley Nature Center in nearby Mohawk Park, “have become a much-needed destination venue with Oxley (Nature Center) and the Zoo,” Pennington said.

The mission of the museum is to educate young people about math, science and technology using an aerospace environment, she said. Growing up, Pennington enjoyed studying math and science in school. “I believe people ought to be exposed to those topics. From the beginning the museum’s focus has been about education.”

Pennington’s first involvement with TASM was through a graduate study program at the University of Tulsa in the mid-1990s. She led a Tulsa Graduate Business College study on the feasibility of launching the museum. The study revealed that admissions at the new facility — built for $3 million with private funds — would more than triple admissions at the previous facility to a minimum of 74,000 yearly.

“I was so impressed that I stayed another semester to help with a fund-raising feasibility study,” she said. Eventually, she was asked to join the board of directors and served as an interim secretary before being named executive director in 2000.

While she came to the museum from the corporate world without much of an aviation background, “my hot button is education,” she said.

From the beginning, museum officials have applied business principles to the operation, she said.

Officials made sure they had the cash in hand before spending it.

“From the business standpoint, most of the original founders had a business background,” she said. “Everything we have done has been slow and methodical.”

A lot of times TASM did without simply because there were no funds.

“We just did not have it. But the community has been very good. very generous,” she said. “We do not spend money we do not have.”

TASM receives no public funds for operations. Officials work to maintain a consistent stream of funding from fees that include admissions, gift shop sales, facility rentals, group tours and summer aerospace camps.

The museum had a slow start, she said, beginning in the 1940s-era hangar donated by Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology south of TIA due to a lack of climate control, which deterred visitors.

“People would literally walk into the museum, discover we had no air conditioning, then walk out,” she said. Relocating made the difference as Hangar One resolved those issues.

“It is so exciting, not having to worry about how hot is it outside,” Pennington said.

Yet interest in the museum continues to heat up, as it promotes Tulsa’s aerospace education and business community by attracting attention to the region’s aerospace history and resources. ?

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