While John Session’s Historic Flight Foundation has been in operation since the early 2000s, and has maintained a fleet of significant vintage aircraft in flying condition within a hangar at Paine Field, in Everett, Washington, the organization opened a new museum space to the general public at the close of 2019. They chose December 17th, the 116th anniversary of powered flight, for its inaugural. The new facility is based at the historic Felts Field in Spokane, Washington. It houses some of the collection’s many aircraft, including their magnificent Douglas C-47 Skytrain decked out as a Pan American Airways DC-3.
Felts Field, just northeast of Spokane, Washington, is a perfect site for an aviation museum, having witnessed more than a century of flying operations over its history. It formally opened as an airport in 1926, when known as the Parkwater Airstrip, but its association with aviation dates to before WWI. The field was also the first in the region with a resident National Guard unit (116th Observation Squadron) and actually gained its present name from one of the Squadron’s airmen, James Buell Felts, who died in a flying accident in May, 1927. Charles Lindbergh flew his Ryan NYP Spirit of St.Louis here on September 12th, 1927 during a North American tour following his historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, and the airfield even hosted the National Air Races later that month.
One of the most astonishing feats associated with Felts Field is the flight endurance record set by pilot Nicholas “Nick” Mamer and his co-pilot Art Walker. In August, 1929 the pair flew a Buhl CA-6 Air Sedan some 10,000 miles – non-stop. Over the course of 120 hours of continuous flying they took the Air Sedan from Felts Field in Spokane, to San Francisco, California then on to New York City and back to Spokane. They refueled in flight, via a 1″ hose lowered from another aircraft above them at various points on the route. Neither man slept during the five day adventure! Mamer went on to fly more than a million air miles without loss of life, but as was too common in that time, his luck eventually failed. On January 10th, 1938, a Lockheed Super Electra (NC17388) he was flying for Northwest Airways came apart in the air over the Bridger Mountains near Bozeman, Montana with the loss of all ten souls aboard. The NTSB attributed the accident to flutter, which lead to the structural failure of both vertical stabilizers. A clock tower, dedicated to Mamer’s memory in 1939, still survives at Felts Field to this day.
Remarkably, the Felts Field retains several significant structures dating back to almost its earliest operational years, including a magnificent art deco passenger terminal. United Airlines had offices here and began operations from the field in 1931. There are also three 1930s-era hangars still in use at the Felts Field, one of which belonged to Northwest Airways (later to become Northwest Airlines, and now part of Delta). These preserved structures, steeped in aviation lore, were part of the allure for the Historic Flight Foundation’s decision to open a museum on the site. Indeed, one of their exhibits, a magnificently restored Travel Air 4000, sports a livery which celebrates the 1927 National Air Races.
Other aircraft from the collection present on opening day included a former Royal Navy Grumman JRF-6 Goose painted in U.S. Navy markings, North American P-51B Mustang Impatient Virgin, a Stearman, and the sole surviving Hamilton H-47 Metalplane airliner, which dates from 1927. The museum has been an instant hit, and received over 1,000 visitors in the first few days of its operation! The Historic Flight Foundation still maintains its facility at Paine Field, home of Boeing’s massive factory, in Everett, Washington, but this new facility gives the organization extra legs, and room for new exhibits. It clearly has an exciting future ahead!