The Florida Air Museum’s Heritage
As early as the 1980’s – just a few years into the SUN ‘n FUN Fly-In – founding director Billy Henderson and others envisioned an aviation museum to anchor the campus and provide a year-round educational and historic presence. Formal planning began in 1983 by a museum committee that interviewed architects, solicited land from the City of Lakeland, and secured the present museum location on the SUN ‘n FUN Fly-In property southwest of Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.
A “mini-museum” first appeared in the corner of Hangar A in 1986. In 1988 the SUN ‘n FUN Aviation Foundation was formed to oversee the construction and operation of the SUN ‘n FUN Air Museum, and all of Hangar A became a temporary museum in 1989. Volunteer curator Marion Robles used his ties to the Naval Air Museum in Pensacola, Florida to obtain the loan of a number of aircraft and aircraft engines, including a Boeing NA-75 (N-25) Stearman and the Lockheed XFV-1 “Vertical Riser” shipboard fighter. Long-time SUN ‘n FUN Fly-In attendees may recall seeing the “Vertical Riser” for many years standing on its tail near the main office. Now, visitors can find it beside the Guest Hospitality Center in Southeast Exhibits. Fully restored after several years of work by dedicated volunteers.
In 1991 the City of Lakeland approved funding for the construction of the current museum building and lease of adjacent land. Although originally planned as a restoration and education facility, the building is now the core of the Florida Air Museum with current and projected expansion to all sides. The main museum building was formally opened to the public during the April, 1992 SUN ‘n FUN Fly-In.
At the same time, volunteer Milt Voigt established a research library. Formerly housed in a small building behind the museum, it is now located on the second level of the Florida Air Museum and open to visitors with a scheduled appointment. Mr. Voigt was instrumental in convincing the Howard Hughes Corporation that the Sun ‘n Fun Museum would be an ideal facility in which to house a large collection of Mr. Hughes’ aviation memorabilia. The collection is among the museum’s most valuable and treasured assets and a rotating selection of artifacts is on display year-round in the Museum.
The Museum was renamed the International Sport Aviation Museum, and informational exhibits such as the Florida Aviation History Wall were added as a complement to the aircraft on display and the Hughes collections. These exhibits are updated and changed periodically, and 2007 marked the visit of our first touring exhibition from The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.
In 1999 the next phase of the Museum complex, a pavilion, slated to become the structural core of an enlarged building, was completed. Serving as a home for evening programs during the SUN ‘n FUN Fly-In and a variety of year-round events, the pavilion includes conference rooms, outside seating with a stage, and various support areas.
In 2002, the Museum was renamed the Florida Air Museum and that same year, received designation as the “Official aviation museum and education center of the State of Florida” by Governor Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature. We are very proud of this honor and aspire to meet the challenges of this distinction.
Recent years have seen more construction. The Tom Davis Education Center, funded by the family trust of the founder of Piedmont Airlines, with additional support from the State of Florida, was dedicated at the 2005 Fly-In and houses summer camp and many other educational programs. The Davis Center also hosted the first residential summer camp session for students during 2007.
During Fly-In 2006, the 8,000 sq. ft. air conditioned Buehler Restoration Skills Center opened just behind the Museum and has been the home to several projects in progress each winter. Finished just in time for the 2007 Fly-In, the adjacent annex classroom building hosts workshop participants during the Fly-In, and the new Central Florida Aerospace Academy during the school year. These spaces offer tremendous year-round opportunities for restoration and educational programs as part of our museum offerings.
August 2014 ushered in a new era for the Florida Air Museum when it was re branded as Aerospace Discovery at Florida Air Museum. The new name brought a focus on the educational programs that happen year round at the Aerospace Center for Excellence on the SUN ‘n FUN Campus. Aerospace Discovery at Florida Air Museum has a rich tradition as the “Official Aviation Museum and Aviation Education Center of the State of Florida” and continues to serve as the anchor point for the Aerospace Center for Excellence for generations to come.