Just a few blocks down to the left of the College Park Metro lies a hidden gem of aviation history. It’s the College Park Aviation Museum, and it’s been around since 1909, making it the oldest aviation museum in the United States.
As you would expect, the aviation museum features exhibits and displays that highlight the major points of American aviation history. You will learn about the famous Wright Brothers and their first attempts at flight decades ago at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina. You will learn about the contribution of airplanes and pilots in American history from World War II. You will learn about the first women ever permitted to fly planes for the United States military. And you will also learn about the history of Air Mail.
What you won’t find is extensive coverage of the contributions of cultural minorities in flight. The museum features only a pallid exhibit less than a few inches wide that highlights African Americans. You’ll have to be careful not to miss it, though. It’s situated right at the exit, just steps before you reach the gift shop. If you’re in a hurry to leave, or if you happen to exit in another direction, you’ll miss it altogether. When you visit the museum, be sure to look out for it. It’s a useful addition packed with lots of information.
If you’re interested in learning more about African Americans in flight, try to coordinate your visit for February 10, 2008. At 2pm on that day, the College Park Aviation museum is to host a guest lecturer who will speak more about the contributions African Americans have made in American history and, most especially, in aviation.
As a whole, the College Park Aviation museum is a visual delight. There are huge scale airplanes suspended from the ceiling and life-size wax figures of famous pilots who flew in the past. Children will enjoy the many hands-on exhibits curators have developed just for them. On my last visit, there was one excited youth who exclaimed, “Oooo, video games!” when he reached one exhibit stop. There is also a neat flight simulation activity that puts kids in the pilot seat of a real plane. Many of the kids were rather excited about that, too. Though they may need help in actual take-off.
Be sure to visit the second level of the museum as well. It is small, but it features lots of early airline advertisement memorabilia (highly collectible). You may recognize an ad or two.
To make your trip to the College Park area a full-day event, consider the following activities as accompaniments to your tour:
• Visit the farmer’s market just blocks from the College Park metro. You should see it on your left when you turn off the main road on to the street that features the aviation museum.
• Take in a college sports event. University of Maryland college football and college basketball teams are noted across the country for their winning records. If you’re traveling with sports fans (hooray, March Madness!) or young teens doing college visits, this side trip may be well worth it.
• Have lunch or dinner at Plato's diner. No college town is complete without a diner, and the University of Maryland at College Park is near a great one. It’s right on Route 1 about a mile or less from the school. Everything on the menu is delicious.