A Smooth Flight
The road up to the Piper Aviation Museum is a bittersweet one. It is, after all, the road to the Piper Aircraft plant, which closed in 1984 and moved to Lakeland, Florida. It is lonely and slightly eerie, as you pass the mostly empty fabrication plants and the empty parking lots. But the trip is worth it, as it leads to the old engineering building at One Piper Way and the entrance to the museum. It is modest in some respects, a fitting hallmark of many of the Piper stories, especially those from the early years. This full-line small aircraft manufacturer survived and thrived on seeing an opportunity or unmet need and nimbly manufacturing the solution. It’s that vision and “can-do” spirit that brought William T. Piper Sr. and Walter Jamouneau, his lead design engineer, to Lock Haven in the first place. That spirit is still at work here, in the heart of the old complex, as the museum (www.pipermuseum.com;  748-8283) both tells the history of these remarkable planes and keeps the beacon burning bright for all those in love with personal planes.
In one form or another, the museum started its existence almost from the time that the Piper Company left Lock Haven. According to John Bryerton, museum board president, the Clinton County Historical Society set up a committee to collect artifacts and information about the company that same year, and set up an office in Hangar #1. The response from the former workers at the plant and the community was strong—so strong that, with the donation of a semi truck trailer from the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, they were able to stage a permanent rolling exhibit that traveled to air shows. The admission fee for the museum on wheels was, hopefully, enough to keep gas in the truck and get it to the next destination. The Piper Museum was a fixture at air shows until 1994-95.
Then, in 1996, the museum got the opportunity to purchase the old engineering building at the Piper plant in Lock Haven. The group moved swiftly to secure the building, and, by 1997, created a larger museum. There, on the second floor, unfolds the story of “The Henry Ford of Aviation,” and the company his team built. There’s a special corner for the WASPs, the women who transported the military planes manufactured here during World War II, and another for Max Conrad, the record setting long-distance pilot who was on the Piper payroll in the 1950s and flew Pipers around the world.
The displays are just the surface. The archives are a rich and growing treasure trove of material that is still arriving over thirty years after the Clinton County Historical Society made their initial request. The documents, photos, and artifacts fill a large hall, and are well organized.
But the real reason for the museum lies below the displays, in a ground level airplane hangar. There, seven restored Piper airplanes weave the spell of flight for everyone—the idea that William Piper had in the 1930s. The J-2 Cub is there, along with the trademark J-3 Piper Cub, and the military application of the J-3, the Grasshopper, used extensively in World War II. There, too, is the plane that saved the plant right after the war. There was a glut of decommissioned small planes, but people wanted a plane where the passenger could sit beside the pilot, not behind. Piper provided and marketed the Vagabond, in lightning speed. The museum also has the PA-12 Supercruiser City of Angels that flew around the world, and a Tri-Pacer ready to exit the hangar and fly.
You can also see the PT-1 trainer prototype, originally built in 1943 for the military to use to train pilots. The Army didn’t choose Piper for the trainer, so only one was ever made. Pennsylvania College of Technology aviation students have expertly restored this piece of aviation history over a period of a few years.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing in the museum is the operating flight simulator. If you make an appointment, you can climb into a Piper Tomahawk II cockpit and try your hand at flying. The computer program lets you take off at an airport, and you roam the hills, then land. It’s realistic enough to scare the pants off anyone not familiar with flying, and the museum staff not only runs the program, but gives you a beginning lesson in piloting the “aircraft.” When I asked Bryerton about it, he said that some people find it easy, others find it most difficult. And just for comparison, there is a 1940s simulator nearby that looks even more cramped, but did the job for new pilots in another era.
There’s a gift shop now, too. And the admission price is modest—$12 for a family, $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $3 for children seven to sixteen, free for six and under. And if you want the thrill of flying in the simulator, it is an extra $5 a person and an appointment is required to ensure that the proper personnel are on hand, so call ahead.