Until about 2001, Tennessee’s extraordinary aviation history seemed to be a rather well kept secret. The opening of the Tennessee Museum of Aviation, in late 2001 was a turning point that provided a home for Tennessee’s Aviation Hall of Fame. It also began an annual celebration at which those who have contributed to the state’s amazing aviation history are formally honored and enshrined.
Bob Minter, Founder of the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame in 1997, got together with the museum’s founder and benefactor, Neal Melton, in the Fall of 2000 and began construction and development of the museum right beside the active runway at the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport in Sevierville. Most of the aircraft collection are airworthy aircraft and are flown frequently for museum visitors. Mr. Melton had looked around most of East Tennessee for a suitable site and chose GKT because the airport serves the Smoky Mountains resorts region and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with more than 10 million visitors each year, the most visited national park in the nation. The area is packed with attractions, activities, shopping and accommodations . . . there is something for everyone. Dolly Parton’s world famous Dollywood amusement park is only a few miles from the airport and the museum’s front door and millions visit Dollywood each year as well.
Construction of the museum’s 50,000 sq. ft. hangar took nearly a year and in December 2001 it opened its doors. Nine months later, the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame held its inaugural Gala and Induction Ceremony. More than 400 attended the event to witness the enshrinement of TAHF’s first class of inductees, lead by one of Tennessee Aviation’s Living Legends, Evelyn Bryan “Mama Bird” Johnson of Morristown. Mrs. Johnson’s 57,640 hours of flying time have earned her numerous accolades including a place in the Genius Book of World Records. Johnson is believed to have more flight time that any woman in aviation history. She managed the airport at Morristown, Tennessee until just before she passed away at 102 years of age in 2012. Fellow inductees also enshrined at the TAHF’s first ceremony were FedEx Founder Fred Smith, renowned aviation trainer, Naval aviator and author Bill Kershner and the posthumous induction of Col. Jim Haun of Nashville. Following a distinguished career as a military pilot, Col. Haun became one of Middle Tennessee’s most beloved flight instructors prior to his passing in 2001.
Before the aviation hall of fame’s first inductions, Mr. Minter who was AOPA’s Southeast Regional Representative for 30 years and an accomplished legislative strategist, asked the 103rd Tennessee General Assembly to make the TAHF the state’s official aviation hall of fame. The Bill passed without a single dissenting vote. About a year later Minter returned to the capitol and was able to successfully have the aviation hall of fame and it’s affiliated museum made Tennessee’s official repository and archive for aviation history by the 104th General Assembly.
Since that first inductions gala in 2002, the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame has held the event each year in mid-November and by the end of 2016 had enshrined 61 extraordinary people. Four more honorees are customarily enshrined of each year, usually in early November.
The criterion for selection and enshrinement is based entirely upon one’s significant and enduring achievement or service to aviation for Tennessee, our nation or the world. Those considered must be either a native Tennessean or someone who has made their contribution or service from within Tennessee. Those born in the state can have accomplished their service or achievement from anywhere in the world. Nominations may be submitted any time and are active until the TAHF’s Nominations Committee or Board of Electors formally acts upon the nomination.
A look at the aviation hall of fame’s website at www.tnaviationhof.org and the members’ stories (those thus far honored) reveals an impressive balance among its members. Distinguished careers that include every facet of aviation and aerospace are represented… general aviation, air carriers, airports, astronautics, space exploration, aviation maintenance and the military. The stories are fascinating and inductees also represent every part of the Volunteer State from East, to Middle and West.
A sampling of those enshrined solidly confirms Tennessee’s historic role in our nation’s progress and leadership in aviation and aerospace around the world. Walter H. Beech (1891-1950), the founder of Beech Aircraft was a native of Pulaski, Tennessee. Beech was enshrined in 2005. Larry D.Cox, AAE, former president of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, also enshrined in 2005 has lead Memphis International Airport to world prominence as the busiest air cargo airport in the world, a title it held for over a decade. The renowned aviation legend, aerobatics pilot and WWII hero, Bob Hoover is a Tennessee native, born in Nashville, where he first learned to fly. Hoover was enshrined in 2003 . . . and there are so many more!
The Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame occupies a special area in the museum of aviation’s beautiful exhibits gallery, designed and constructed by a professional museum firm. While the museum’s aircraft and memorabilia collections are focused primarily on and around the Warbirds of WWII fame and honoring those who flew them, the Aviation Hall of Fame is dedicated to Tennessee’s aviation history and to those who made it. The museum and hall of fame are actually two separate IRS 501(c)(3) non-profit corporate entities each with its own Board of Directors. Funding for the Hall of Fame is generated through individual and corporate donations and bequests and the Gala is paid for through sponsorships, donations and individual admission ticket sales. Formal invitations are sent to growing base of dedicated supporters and the event is open to the public. To date, more than 7,000 have witnessed the formal ceremony. An invitation and registration form can be downloaded from the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame website.
The Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors takes its responsibility as the official aviation repository and archive seriously. The stately dedicated area inside the museum of aviation may be “home” for the TAHF but the Board realizes that it is a long way from East to West Tennessee and connecting with Tennesseans interested in aviation history requires programs that serve as an educational outreach. Toward that end the TAHF is seeking to partner with a variety of aviation and educational interests throughout the state. In 2008 a significant partnership was established with Middle Tennessee State University. The MTSU Aerospace has earned a stellar international reputation in the aviation industry for its degree programs in aviation administration, flight and maintenance technical training. MTSU’s “Gore Research Center” has extraordinary expertise and capabilities in artifact preservation and security. Plans call for access to the database via the internet. The objective is not to attempt to coalesce otherwise far-flung elements and memorabilia into one place, but to identify stories, facts and locations where researchers and aviation history buffs can explore Tennessee’s aviation history where it happened. Tennessee is blessed with many local museums like the Rose Center in Morristown, where some of Evelyn Bryan Johnson’s memorabilia resides. Other aircraft museums in Tennessee include The Swift Museum Foundation located on the airport in Athens; The Beechcraft Heritage Museum is on Tullahoma’s Municipal Airport.