The youngest attraction among the Pacific Historic Parks is adding millions of dollars in improvements designed to make it more appealing to today’s experiential travelers and boost attendance to at least a half million visitors a year.
The Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum in June added two new Fighter Ace 360 Flight Simulators. The fully 3D, movable pilot experience is so realistic it comes with barf bags.
“Many people who visit Pearl Harbor enjoy aviation and history, but few ever have the chance to pilot aircraft,” said Elissa Lines, museum executive director. “The person sitting in the cockpit controls them and they’ll even go upside down. These simulators are our way to open up the awe-inspiring experience of aviation to everyone who comes through our doors.”
While there are more than 600 aviation museums in the country, Lines said, the Pearl Harbor attraction is unique because it is on historic Ford Island, where bombs fell during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack. It is the nation’s only World War II aviation battlefield and the only one in the country where visitors can walk on a real aviation battlefield, enter bullet-scared hangars, and see the control tower and aircraft of the type that fought in the battle.
“The attack started here. They took out the planes first so that they weren’t able to respond,” Lines said. “Being in the buildings that withstood impact on Dec. 7 is a very unique position for our museum and that really is more important than the aircraft that we’ve placed inside.”
Lines said the new simulators are part of a $1.3 million campaign to fund infrastructure and exhibits that will replace the roof of historic Hangar 79 and help create the pavilion for interpretation of the museum’s grounds as a battlefield.
Money from a separate campaign — and the generosity of the Schoen family, who own U-Haul moving company — was used for restoration of the Ford Island Control Tower, the soon to be opened library, and an archaeological tower. Among other improvements, the museum is currently working to install an elevator in the control tower, which should be ready by August.
All of that pairs with a $2.5 million investment in educational improvements: opening the Raytheon Pavilion for traveling exhibits; and finishing out a $3.1 million learning center geared to promoting interest in the aviation industry and the science, technology, engineering and math fields needed to sustain it.
It’s the museum’s most ambitious undertaking since an earlier capital campaign finished the outside of the control tower. The museum is rushing to complete these latest improvements by next July — just in time for the 75th anniversary of the end of the war, when thousands will come to Hawaii to take part in commemorative events Aug. 25-Sept. 2.
The Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum welcomed 96,000 visitors in 2006, the year it opened. Last year, 245,000 people visited and the museum is on a mission to grow its attendance 5% to 10% each year to move closer to its goal of hitting the half million mark. Lines said the national commemoration and all of the related exposure should bring the museum closer to benchmark attendance.
Lines said the commemorative events, which will take place in Hawaii at important locations such as the museum and aboard the USS Missouri, where World War II ended with the signing of the Japanese surrender documents, will be spectacular and moving. While the events will allow the museum to showcase all of its collective improvements, visitors also will get a chance to sample some of the museum’s special programming much sooner during Living History Day Sept. 21. In partnership with the Smithsonian, admission on that day is free to those who download tickets at the online link, 808ne.ws/freemuseumday.
Living History Day is expected to draw up to 4,000 attendees, and the museum has special activities planned including opening aircraft cockpits for viewing, remote-control flying activities and swing dancing. Of course, $10 simulator rides, which recently drew rave reviews during a sneak peak for media and community partners, will be available.
“I thought it was thrilling,” said Manako Tanaka. “If you turned it left, it went left and it kept going left. I thought it was a great way to bond with my friend. We did not do well when it came to the enemy; however, we’re glad it was a simulator.”
Lines said the simulators, participating in Living History Day, and all of the improvements are part of the museum’s quest to move from a “static walk-through experience” to one that offers visitors the chance to have a “fresh, engaging and immersive experience that helps them to remember things that were a part of their families’ lives.”
Beyond the $3.8 million overhaul, the museum hopes to put a TBM Avenger, the type of aircraft that President George Bush jumped out of during the war, on display in a few months. The TBM Avenger will bookend with the museum’s longtime display of the Boeing N2S-3 Stearman Kaydet that Bush soloed in while participating in flight training. Incidentally, he was the first airman rescued via submarine in WWII and was the youngest naval aviator to get his wings.
The TBM Avenger brings the museum’s aircraft count to more than 40 on display, including a rare Japanese Nakajima Kate, the type of torpedo bomber that dropped bombs on the USS Arizona. Lines said it’s one of only two on display in the world — the other is in England.
Even more exciting news surrounds one of the museum’s signature displays, the B-17 Swamp Ghost, which could get new life over the next several years as The Disney Co. works with the museum on developing a $4.2 million attraction like one at a Disney Resort to tell the aircraft’s story.
The B-17 Swamp Ghost was en route to Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, but was diverted and avoided the attack. However, it was downed in its first mission, a battle over Rabaul in Papua New Guinea, which was part of the early stages of the U.S. response to Japanese aggression in the Pacific. Though the young crew survived, they lost the aircraft by mistakenly landing it in a swamp, where it stayed until 2012, until a California businessman salvaged the aircraft.
Lines said the Disney exhibit will allow visitors to grasp an understanding of what drives all men and women who serve and will use “the events of the past to develop and pass on the values and character of ‘Our Greatest Generation.’”