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Historic Hanscom hangar is potential Site for Massachusetts Technology Museum



Boston Globe -- NorthWest section

December 7, 2006

Museum seeks Hanscom landing

But Massport may have designs on an empty hangar group is eyeing

By Davis Bushnell, Globe Correspondent

The large, nondescript steel hangar on the Concord side of Hanscom Field belies a colorful past.

The site was once a hotbed of aeronautical research, where pioneering navigation and radar systems were developed from 1948 to 2001.

Initially under the direction of the legendary Charles Stark Draper, then an institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the hangar has been called the MIT Instrumentation Flight Facility and the MIT Lincoln Laboratory Flight Facility. Today, the vacant building is simply known as the MIT Hangar, or Hangar 24.

Now, a coalition of historic preservation groups and aviation history buffs wants to convert the hangar to a nonprofit enterprise called the Massachusetts Air and Space Museum.

"It's time to recognize that Massachusetts has a rich aviation heritage that should be showcased in one place," said Bill Deane of Melrose, president of the Massachusetts Aviation Historical Society, which meets monthly at the Bedford airfield. "After all, Massachusetts is where the first jet engine was developed and the first rocket was designed."

In New England, only Massachusetts and Vermont do not have an aviation museum, Deane said.

However, setting up a museum at Hanscom Field will be "a daunting challenge," he said.

That is mainly because, he and others said, the Massachusetts Port Authority owns and operates the general aviation airport and is looking for ways to expand operations.

Crosspoint Aviation Services of Woburn, for example, had planned to build a maintenance facility at the hangar site. But three months ago, the company, which faced considerable opposition from local officials and activist groups, said it was no longer interested in the project.

Although Massport condemned the hangar earlier this year , five years after a lease was terminated with Lincoln Laboratory, the agency "will meet with all interested parties" concerning a possible museum, said Richard Walsh, chief spokesman for Hanscom Field. In the meantime, he said, efforts to get bids from other firms like Crosspoint have been put on hold.

One of the parties Massport will be dealing with is the Massachusetts Historical Commission, which, on Oct. 19, sent a letter to Thomas Kinton, Massport's chief executive.

In that letter, Brona Simon, acting executive director of the commission, said the former MIT hangar "is included . . . in the inventory of historic assets of the Commonwealth." Moreover, she said, the site will be proposed for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

Such a designation would not protect the building from alterations or demolition, but could help the owners receive federal funding or tax credits for rehabilitation.

Last month, proponents of an air museum at Hanscom met in Burlington to discuss strategies. They included Deane; Anna Winter, executive director of Save Our Heritage, a Concord-based historic preservation group; Charles "Chip" Collins of Westford, a former test pilot who was hired by Draper in 1947; and John Garabedian of Southborough, a collector of classic aircraft.

"An aviation museum at Hanscom Field would fit in with the stream of museums in the national Minute Man park area," Winter said. "As such, it would enliven the park and the historical spirit of the area."

In February 1953, Collins, now 87, was on a historic flight from Bedford. He piloted a B-29 bomber to Los Angeles that was equipped with the first inertial navigation system developed by Draper, who died in 1987. This system, utilizing gyroscopes and computers, enables a plane to be put on a predetermined course without any outside communication input. It is informally called a self-navigation system.

Draper's innovative system was the subject of a 1958 CBS television program, "Conquest."

"The system also was a contributor to our atomic submarine and space programs," recalled Collins, who flew 5,000 hours as a test pilot in and out of Hanscom Field. He retired 18 years ago from the MIT-Lincoln Lab operation.

Guidance-and-control devices originally worked on by Draper are now also used in weapons-delivery systems, said John Benkert, flight test manager for the MIT-Lincoln Labs center at Hanscom Air Force Base. It is situated about

1 1/2 miles from the former hangar at the airfield.

Starting in the 1970s at the MIT hangar, Lincoln Lab began experimenting with a traffic alert-collision avoidance system aimed at preventing mid air collisions. This system has been implemented worldwide, Benkert said.

In 1986, a more unusual project emerged from the MIT hangar, he said. This was a leg-powered aircraft, called "Eagle," which was successfully flown from the Island of Crete to the Greek mainland to re - create the mythological flight of Daedalus and son Icarus.

All of the ideas spawned at the MIT hangar merit being part of a museum, and Hanscom Field is a natural venue because of its proximity to Minute Man National Historical Park, Benkert said.

Garabedian, a self-styled media entrepreneur who has collected 20 aircraft built in the 1930s to the '60s, said he nearly closed a museum deal at Plymouth Airport last year. "But they wanted tax money, and I pulled the plug."

However, "putting a museum at Hanscom, in the Boston area, where there are 2 million visitors a year, would seem to be an ideal setting," said Garabedian, host of a national radio program, "Open House Party."

A museum commemorating this state's aeronautical achievements will be built, he asserted. "The only question now is where it will be built."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


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