A place where imagination takes flight05/16/2016 11:21AM ● By J. Chambless
Visitors can see a large collection of vintage helicopters on display.
It would be an understatement to say that the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center is a unique attraction in West Chester. After all, how many museums can offer helicopter rides as one of the activities? But the one-of-a-kind nature of the museum extends far beyond the helicopter rides.
The museum, which opened two decades ago, features interactive exhibits, guided tours, an education center, and various science and technology programs to spark a visitor's imagination. The museum has an impressive collection of about 35 different civilian and military helicopters from World War II era to the present. Some notable examples are a Bell 47B (1945), Bell AH-1F Cobra, Piasecki HUP and H-21, Boeing CH-46E, Sikorsky S-51 (1946) and a Sikorsky VH 34 D that was recently donated by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. The museum also has the only Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor currently on display by a museum anywhere in the world.
One of the facts that a visitor to the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center quickly learns is that the museum is located in the heartland of helicopter innovation.
“Going back to the 1930s and 1940s, a lot of technology breakthroughs occurred in the Delaware Valley, or development was being done by people who had roots here. A large percentage of the American helicopter companies have operations here today,” explained Marc Sheffler, the Chairman of the helicopter museum's Board of Trustees. Sheffler, a retired engineer from Boeing who enjoyed a 38-year career in the industry, explained that there is a three-fold mission for the museum—to preserve, to educate, and to inspire.
The American Helicopter Museum and Education Center (AHMEC) opened to the public in 1996. Three years earlier, a group of helicopter enthusiasts got together to discuss ways to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the American Helicopter Society, a milestone that the organization was going to reach in 1994. This group decided that they didn’t want a one-time event to mark the occasion, so discussions about a permanent museum took place. This led to the formation of the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center, a place to collect, preserve, research, and exhibit artifacts and documents related to the origins and development of rotary-wing aircraft. Sheffler explained that Peter Wright, a distinguished aviator and the founder of Keystone Helicopter Corporation, was instrumental in the formation of the museum, as were Treb Lipton and Bob Beggs of Boeing.
From the very beginning, an important part of the museum's mission was to document the origins and development of rotary-wing aircraft. Exhibits in the museum honor the efforts of industry pioneers like Harold Frederick Pitcairn, Frank Piasecki, W. Wallace Kellett, and Arthur Young.
“We have an exciting new exhibit coming soon called Pioneer Hall,” Sheffler explained. “There are kiosks where visitors can learn about the challenges that the early pioneers faced and then try their hand at solving a problem to test their innovation skills. A modern museum has to have more hands on interactivity, and that's what we will have.”
While helicopters are a relatively new invention in the grand scheme of things, man has long had a fascination with the concept of vertical flying machines. The earliest references about vertical flight can be traced to around 400 B.C. when Chinese children played with a bamboo flying toy, called a Chinese top, that has a two-bladed rotor on a stick that could be rolled between the hands and released to fly vertically.
Around 1485, Leonardo da Vinci designed a helicopter based around the concept of an aerial screw, but it would still be a long time before scientific knowledge increased to the point where the designs could be transformed into machines capable of vertical flight. The museum documents and showcases the history of helicopters as they evolved through the years.
“We have about 35 helicopters on display or in storage,” Sheffler explained. “In addition to the helicopters, we have 18,000 items in our archives.”
These archives include everything from helicopter designs to early original patent documents and other artifacts that are significant to the history of helicopters. One item that Sheffler particularly likes is a slide rule used by Igor Sikorsky.
“We tell visitors that this is one of the first computers,” Sheffler explained.
The museum has been recognized numerous times for offering an outstanding educational and scientific experience for children, and the close proximity to the Brandywine Airport is an extraordinary gift for visitors. There are many times during the course of a year when helicopter rides are offered.
In 2003, just seven years after the museum opened, the organization decided to buy the building that it is located in so that this would be a permanent home. The effort to complete the purchase was helped immensely when Frank Robinson, owner of Robinson Helicopters, donated $1 million to the effort.
Currently, the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center is in the middle of an expansion project that will increase its exhibit space, add a fully-equipped theater, and add two state-of-the-art classrooms for education programming. One of the classrooms will be set up for hands-on experiences for visitors.
“Adding two classrooms and a larger theater will enable us to serve more school groups than ever before,” said executive director Sarah Sands.
There is now extra room for the museum to host corporate conferences. For example, 400 realtors recently held a meeting at the museum. The facility can also be booked for rehearsal dinners, engagement parties, weddings, and other events.
“Corporations will find these additions invaluable for training programs and social events,” Sands explained.
The new space for the Restoration Center will allow the museum’s volunteer craftsmen to work on helicopters that are too large for existing rooms. They will also be able to do the restoration work, utilizing the necessary machinery and chemicals, in a space that doesn’t interfere with other visitors. The building can now be open seven days a week to visitors and guests, if necessary.
Sheffler said that the museum is very reliant on volunteers—there are approximately 125 men and women who assist with the facility's operations in a lot of different ways.
“There are a lot of helicopter industry retirees who volunteer here,” Sheffler explained. “But you do not need to be a helicopter engineer or mechanic to volunteer. There are a lot of different volunteer opportunities, and we train people. Even volunteering one hour a week is appreciated.”
According to Sheffler, with the expansion nearing completion, this is a very exciting time in the history of the museum. “We are always working to improve and expand programs and workshops to inspire the next generation of scientists, innovators, and pilots.” These educational programs are targeted toward students of all ages. Erica Zwilling is the education program director, and Sheffler said that she works hard to schedule as many public education programs as possible. This year, the helicopter museum teamed with officials from the West Chester Area School District to bring a rotor blade design course to all 7th grade technical education students in one school. This program will be expanded to three schools in the district in the next school year.
“We have a range of programs for children, from kindergarten on up,” Sheffler explained.
Additionally, the museum also offers a popular Women in Aerospace and Technology Program that is designed for girls in grades 3-12 to promote their interest in science, technology, engineering, math, and flight. The museum works with the Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania and other organizations to make this program possible.
The museum has a full slate of special events and activities that are open to the public, including a gala event that takes place each year. There's also a Father’s Day celebration called Fatherfest that features an open house, a classic car show, vendors, a drone demonstration, and helicopter rides.
Nina Kelly, the director of marketing and communications for Chester County's Brandywine Valley, the official tourism agency for Chester County, said that the American Helicopter Museum has multi-generational appeal, with everyone from military veterans to children having an interest.
“Who doesn't like helicopter rides?” Kelly asked. “It's a really great experience.”
She added that the helicopter museum has a great space to rent out for business meetings and other events.
Sheffler said that the American Helicopter Museum attracts about 35,000 people annually, but with all the new improvements and offerings that will likely increase. That will mean that more people will come to enjoy this hidden gem, and more people will understand why West Chester, with its proximity to so much helicopter innovation, is the perfect spot for this museum.
“We’re still kind of a hidden treasure,” Sheffler explained. “Once people find out about us, they are surprised by all that we have to offer here.”
American Helicopter Museum and Education Center
1220 American Boulevard
West Chester, PA 19380
The American Helicopter Museum and Education Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each Wednesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $10 for adults and $8 for children, students, and senior citizens.
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email [email protected]