Lonely times at Kalaeloa museum
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
KALAELOA — With little fanfare, Naval Air Museum Barbers Point celebrated its 10th anniversary a few weeks ago.
In fact, it had no visitors on Jan. 19, despite it being the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Executive director Brad Hayes spent the afternoon doing some work for a museum at Schofield Barracks.
But low-key is a recurring theme for the little-known museum that's designed as a living tribute to the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station and naval aviation history in Hawai'i. It's also been standing quietly in the shadow of the much better financed and considerably more popular Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor's Ford Island that opened on Dec. 7, 2006.
Because Naval Air Museum Barbers Point operates with volunteers only, visitors must make appointments to see the museum. Hayes estimated an average of two school groups visit the facility each week. They make up about 90 percent of his clientele with the rest being mostly weekend visitors.
The goal is to get five school group visits a week, Hayes said. "The more school kids the better," he said.
What visitors to the museum will see is an impressive array of about a dozen aircraft, all with close ties to the six-decade history of Barbers Point.
Many have been painstakingly restored to their former glory. A 1969 UH-1H Huey helicopter, for instance, has been repainted and loaded with authentic, Vietnam War-era equipment including an instrument panel, flight manual, pilot vest and helmet. Some of the items were purchased off eBay by volunteers.
Hayes said he traced the history of the chopper and found that it had once crash-landed in Vietnam. That's just one of the stories associated with the aircraft.
Also part of the museum's arsenal of aircraft are the stuff of every kid modeler's dreams: two F-4N Phantom II and three A-4E Skyhawk jets. The Skyhawk was the jet John McCain flew in Vietnam and one of the museum's jets has been remade to look like McCain's.
Visitors can also walk into a restored UH-3H Sea King helicopter used largely for torpedo recovery, search and rescue and utility purposes, most recently at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kaua'i.
There's also the UP-3A Orion, a 14-person plane that was heavily used during the Cold War as a submarine tracking aircraft. The interior even includes a kitchen and dining area. "When we started, this plane was gutted," Hayes said.
All the aircraft were either once stationed at Barbers Point or are models of such.
Hayes said that he and the other volunteers cater their tours to the needs of visitors. Some classes are focused on the history of the air station while others want to learn about the aircraft and the science of flight.
"We're not a tourist attraction," he said. "This is a local resource. There's no other airport in the state of Hawai'i that has its own indigenous air museum."
Hayes shrugged when asked why there's no commemoration of the event. The small volunteer museum staff is actually planning a big celebration to commemorate another landmark that occurs in 2011.
"The big thing we're gearing up for is the centennial of naval aviation," Hayes said, noting that the party at Barbers Point will be just one of a number of celebrations to be held at naval air museums across the country.
Most of the roughly 3,700 acres that comprise what was renamed Kalaeloa is now an amalgamation of private homes, warehouse space, public parks and beaches, homeless facilities, government services and other uses. The Navy recently transferred 499 acres to a private developer.
But an airport for both civil and military aircraft remains under the control of the state Department of Transportation. "It's still an air station, but it's not," Hayes said.
The air museum sits on a corner of it.
After obtaining a couple of excess aircraft from the Navy in the wake of the base closure in July 1999, Hayes and other volunteers asked for and received space from the state for a space to the side of existing hangars for a museum.
The museum pays the DOT $600 to $700 for its aircraft tie-down space, as well as the museum's "Ready Room," which is designed to look like the type of briefing room naval pilots would use.
Hayes, a 38-year-old former Marine, said he's grateful for what the museum has, but he yearns for more.
"It could be a better relationship," Hayes said of his interactions with DOT officials. "Right now, (state DOT officials) don't realize or appreciate what they have got in this air museum on their airport."
More resources could be put into the facility, he said, noting that he has to go out himself to clear the tie-downs of accumulated grass and dirt.
DOT spokeswoman Tammy Mori, in response to Hayes' concerns, said the museum "has always been welcome at Kalaeloa airport and, in fact, they are occupying far more space with their vehicles and their aircraft than they are permitted."
The free tie-down space is a fact Hayes acknowledged on his own.
Mori said the agency appreciates its mission and the tours that are offered. "We welcome and support their facilities and the purpose behind their facilities," she said.
Hayes has been denied a request to use part of the hangar that sits next to the museum to house some of its aircraft.
The hangar is under the management of the Pacific Aerospace Training Center, which houses two Honolulu Community College aviation programs. Hayes said the programs use only a portion of the space.
But Ralph Hiatt, the center's executive director, said the quitclaim deed the center has from the U.S. Department of Education requires that the hangar be used for aviation training and aviation training activities only.
"He knows he can't have it," Hiatt said of Hayes' wish.
And then there's the museum's relationship with the Pacific Aviation Museum. While Hayes has been fighting an uphill battle to get a section of one hangar, the Pacific Aviation Museum has one to itself at Ford Island and hopes to have two other hangars of displays by 2012.
Hayes said initially there was a sense of competition among the two facilities, and he believes its previous management wanted to "assimilate" the Naval Air Museum Barbers Point aircraft into the Pacific Aviation Museum. "It has been like a cold war," he said.
But that's changed since new Pacific Aviation Museum director Ken DeHoff came aboard last year, Hayes said.
"The new director has come over here and expressed interest in collaborating on some way, shape or form together," Hayes said. "It's a lot bigger, a lot more money — it's a professional building they've got that's air-conditioned, and they've got a staff that's paid."
DeHoff said he's very open to more cooperation between the two museums, noting that the two have "entirely different missions."
DeHoff said the Ford Island facility is focused on Pearl Harbor's role in World War II. It works closely with all branches of the military and in concert with the Arizona Memorial, the Battleship Missouri and the USS Bowfin facilities.
"Our mission is to honor the aviators and support personnel that defended freedom in the Pacific Theater, and that's across Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force," he said.
Pacific Aviation Museum and Naval Air Museum Barbers Point have had cooperative relations, he said, noting that Hayes brought an aircraft tow device to help bring in an F-14 Tomcat that arrived for the Ford Island museum last year.
He added: "I always look for opportunities on how we support each other," DeHoff said, adding that he empathizes with what Hayes is doing.
"He's got a hard row to hoe out there," he said. "He's almost like a one-man band."
Hayes said similarly that he feels there can be two air museums on the island.
"We can't have enough museums on this island," he said.
Hayes said he and the other volunteers simply want to preserve the memory not only of the air station, but also of those who died either at the airfield or in combat while home-based at Barbers Point, a number he put at between 600 and 700.
"We just wanted to make sure that when the naval air station was decommissioned, the memory of what was there, including actual tangible items that were there, weren't swept away," he said.
Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at email@example.com.