Wings Over the Rockies' Has Sky-High Hopes for $24 Million Exploration of Flight

Boeing Blue Sky Aviation Gallery (Wings Over the Rockies)

One of the biggest selling points for Exploration of Flight, the ambitious new campus from Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, is its immediacy.

Visitors can stand at the edge of a tarmac in Englewood and watch aircraft take off from and land at the nation's second-busiest private-aviation airport. Inside, pilots-in-training can hop into state-of-the-art flight simulators, while schoolchildren can don VR goggles and add death-defying loops to virtual plane rides over the Front Range.

On the third Saturday of every month, kids can even take to the sky in the real thing -- for free.

"We want this facility at Centennial Airport to be a place where inspiration can be generated for children and the next round of aerospace (workers)," said retired Maj. Gen. John Barry, president of the Wings Over the Rockies. "There's only really one other (aerospace) organization that's one museum with two locations, and that's the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C."

At Exploration of Flight, which opened its first phase July 20, interactive educational displays in the Adventures in Aviation row sit near massive working aircraft. There are spots to watch and listen to real airplane traffic, and a working lounge for pilots. And it's all open to the public.

Unlike its original location and museum in the Lowry neighborhood, Wings Over the Rockies' Englewood space isn't filled with artifacts of Colorado's aviation past, but concepts and experimental aircraft that point the way toward its aerospace future.

The $5 million, 19,000-square-foot Boeing Blue Sky Aviation Gallery is just the first step, to be followed by the space-focused Black Sky Gallery and an entrance gallery that connects the two (and mimics the look of the flag-adorned tower at the Lowry location). The project, which broke ground in 2014, continues to count high-profile supporters, including former Gov. John Hickenlooper and actor Harrison Ford, who acted as honorary co-chairmen of the 15-acre campus and attended an opening event there over the summer. Plans call for an eventual $24 million complex.

The challenge now is securing the rest of the money and letting people know about the space, which is only open on Saturdays and Sundays at this point on a winding road 19 miles south of Lowry (13005 Wings Way).

"Colorado has always been about exploration and frontiers, with big mountains and even bigger skies," said former Wings president Greg Anderson who, like his successor Barry, is a U.S. Air Force veteran. "People come out here, whether it's 150 years ago or more recently, to be in this great location. We still want to be pioneers to the last frontier that hasn't been settled -- the one over our heads."

Since 1994, the nonprofit Wings has been showcasing local and national flight history and, more recently, steering kids toward careers in the sky while cheerleading the state's aerospace industry -- which is second only to California's with 190,880 direct and indirect jobs and $15.4 billion in annual economic impact, according to the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.

Wings' home at the former Lowry Air Force Base is no accident. Lowry operated from 1937 to 1994, graduating more than 1.1 million enlisted members and officers from its technical training programs, and playing roles in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War, a Wings spokesman said.

But when Lowry's 182,000-square-foot Hangar No. 1 was handed over to Wings volunteers in 1994 for the purpose of preserving that history, the hoped-for stream of visitors was far from assured.

Wings got a lift in 1997 when state legislation made the Lowry museum the official air and space museum of Colorado, and the home to the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame. But nearly a decade later, it was still underfunded and working to plug the gaps.

"In 2004 we didn't have computers that worked, the roof was leaking and the parking lot was a mud pile when the drains backed up," Anderson said. "We felt really good when we got telephones to work. There were basically only two or three people on staff at the time."

That's compared with 25 full-time employees now. But it's not the only thing Anderson is proud of during his tenure.

When he first began working on Exploration of Flight -- a concept that would crucially place Wings' educational goals and industry connections at a real, working airport -- along with Wings' board of directors, market research and advisory meetings with educators, parents, museum experts and industry all reminded them of the same thing: Wings was lacking.

"It was not then what it should be or could be," Anderson said. "And as the state's official air and space museum, it wasn't just an opportunity but a responsibility. We also really needed to do this to claim that title of being one of America's leading aerospace states."

Wings has lately been celebrating explosive growth -- including a 24 percent increase in paid attendance in 2017, with more than 100,000 visitors to Lowry. That's due to a number of factors, including the growing population along the Front Range; a higher profile at the Lowry location (thanks to popular events such as "Star Wars at the Hangar," which drew more than 5,000 people in 2017, up 32 percent); partnerships; traveling exhibits and private events; and savvy marketing that includes a TV show on Rocky Mountain PBS.

"We've seen the results of that in through-the-door admissions and revenue growth," said Ben Theune, director of marketing for Wings, which counted $5.5 million in operating revenues in 2017 over $3.7 million in spending. It doesn't hurt that big-name donors and corporate sponsors such as Boeing have increasingly fallen into formation behind Wings' aspirations.

Things also seem to be lining up for Wings' mission of expanding aviation education to more diverse populations. While the Cherry Creek School District first rejected an application for a new Colorado Skies Academy charter school -- which would have completed Barry's dream of an aerospace middle school at Centennial Airport, according to the Aurora Sentinel -- the state handed Wings a win when the Colorado Board of Education on Wednesday forced Cherry Creek to reconsider the application.

Wings' longtime goal of becoming known as the best air and space museum west of the Mississippi River doesn't seem as distant as it once did. But the power of its barely six-month-old branch remains largely untested. (Half of a year may seem like a long time at an airport, but it's a blip in the life of a cultural institution.)

"It's been a little bit of building the airplane while we're flying," Barry said. "Now that we actually have the facility down there, people can see the vertical vision, not just the ambitions."

This is a unique time in aerospace history, he argues, and it would be a waste not to take advantage of the fast-evolving technology driving it -- which in turn constantly begets new teaching tools. Colorado also has a strong existing aviation culture and infrastructure, which extends from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and Peterson, Buckley and Shriever Air Force bases to Colorado-based operations from most major aerospace companies (minus SpaceX), plus a host of academic and scientific research at universities across the state.

"Even (Jeff) Bezos, with Blue Origin, has got connections here," Barry said of the Amazon founder's aerospace company.

However, the population growth and development along the Front Range in recent years is no guarantee of success for Wings' new venture, which had been in various stages of planning and fundraising for more than a decade before it opened in July. Outdoor recreation, trendy restaurants and concerts never fail to turn people out in Colorado. State-of-the-art aerospace education, on the other hand, is a harder sell.

Aerospace insiders know Colorado is home to Ball Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Harris Corp., United Launch Alliance and Sierra Nevada Corp -- the last of which will be sponsoring Wings' Black Sky Gallery. Barry wants them to mention Wings Over the Rockies in the same breath.

It's all part of Wings' strategy for turning the Front Range into "Aerospace Alley, or the Silicon Valley of aviation," as Anderson put it. That means not only starting young, but also expanding the pool of potential pilots, engineers, astronauts and technicians. In the 1980s, Lowry was one of the state's biggest employers with roughly 10,000 military and civilian men and women, and an annual economic impact of nearly $1 billion, according to Wings.

Turning Colorado into aerospace's Silicon Valley requires a skilled local workforce, said Barry, the former superintendent of Aurora Public Schools and an advocate of evolving education to fit technology.

"If you afford a child a choice, choice is ownership," he said. "Ownership is motivation, and motivation is success. Once you give a kid something they're excited about, you've just got to get out of their way. Unfortunately, our education right now is still on that 20th century model -- we call it Carnegie units. And you don't have any choice. We need more pathways, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is just the one we happen to be focusing on."

Anderson echoes the sentiment, adding that aviation is not a closed or elite society. When he flies kids in his airplane -- which on a recent weekday was parked snugly inside the cavernous Blue Sky Aviation Gallery -- all he sees is potential on their smiling faces.

"Aerospace has this perception that it's hard to get into," Anderson said. "But who doesn't relate to wanting to fly like a bird or a superhero, or landing on the moon? Most people know aviation from airports and security hassles. It's so much more than that, and we want to be the access point, because it leads to all of these other things."

This article is written by John Wenzel from Denver Post and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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