The U.S. Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker took a first step toward its future expansion plans during a Brick Paver dedication ceremony June 12.
The dedication ceremony marked the beginning of fundraising for Phase II of the Museum, a dream that has lingered in the back of director Steve Maxham’s mind since the museum was first built in 1989.
The 85,000-square-foot museum currently displays about 50 aircraft in its public galleries. It houses about 160 more, however, in private storage warehouses, including several rare and experimental prototypes.
Maxham said Phase II plans intend to bring these impressive collections not only out into the light, but upfront and center in a new showcase dedicated to the rich history of U.S. Army Aviation research and development.
Two of the most exciting pieces in the Museum’s private collection, the Lockheed AH-56 Cheyenne and the Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche, will serve as centerpieces. And among Army Aviation buffs like Maxham, there are no two models more worthy.
“The Cheyenne and the Comanche are the two quantum leaps in technology we never took,” Maxham said. “There are no two pieces more deserving of being in the center.”
The Cheyenne and the Comanche were multi-billion dollar helicopter projects designed in the 1960s and 1990s, respectively. Although the Army ultimately decided not to purchase either aircraft, the two helicopters represent some of the most sophisticated developments in aviation technology for their time, Maxham said.
The Cheyenne’s mission was one of “pure attack,” he said.
“You could call it the grandfather of the Apache, but I wouldn’t,” Maxham said. “It is its own thing.”
Only 10 prototypes of the aircraft were ever built, several of which were in the flying stages of development. Of those, only four remain in existence at Fort Rucker.
“At the time it was built, it was probably the single most complex flying machine on the planet,” Maxham said. “It represents an absolute departure from anything we thought we knew about rotor wing thinking.”
The Cheyenne was the first rigid rotor helicopter, meaning that its rotor blades did not articulate like a typical helicopter’s. In addition, the Cheyenne had 9.5-foot aerodynamic wings. The unique aircraft also had a conventional tail rotor, like a helicopter, and a pusher prop, like a biplane.
“What you’re looking at essentially is a biplane,” Maxham said. “This was a jet-powered biplane that thought it was a helicopter.”
Maxham said this combination of qualities gave the Cheyenne helicopter some unusual capabilities.
“It would loop, it would invert, it would roll; it could do things helicopters aren’t supposed to do in the air,” Maxham said. “When you take all those elements together and you put them in one aircraft, you think, that won’t fly—that shouldn’t fly. The fact is that it flew; it was amazing. The test pilots will tell you it would do things in the air a hummingbird can’t, and that’s probably the most aerodynamically sound thing in the universe.”
Despite such unique abilities, the Army cancelled the production of the Cheyenne in 1969, and officially ended the program in 1972.
Likewise, the $7 billion dollar Comanche project was cancelled in 2004, after more than 20 years of research.
To the outside observer, the Comanche looks similar to the AH-64 Apache helicopter, the Army’s present attack aircraft. It is, however, quite a different bird, Maxham said.
Boeing-Sikorsky began the development of the RAH-66 Comanche in the early 1990s. The Comanche was intended as a reconnaissance and attack helicopter. Only two prototypes were ever built, both of which the museum keeps in storage.
Despite their technological advances, both the Cheyenne and the Comanche had problems that ultimately stopped the Army from buying them. To Maxham, however, the time and money spent on the projects was by no means a waste.
“No money on research and development is ever wasted,” Maxham said.
The money invested in the Cheyenne and Comanche programs led to advancements in other Army aircrafts, such as the development of the glass cockpit. The Apache’s weaponry system was also benefited by breakthroughs in both research and development programs.
In addition to these fascinating models, aviation enthusiasts can look forward to seeing several other legendary aircrafts in the new museum, including the first prototypes of Bell’s UH-1 Huey and AH-1 Cobra.
The museum will also showcase some of the most pivotal breakthroughs in rotor wing aircraft development, such as the world’s first gas turbine engine helicopter by Sikorsky.
Sikorsky was the first to put a turbine engine, previously an engine reserved for jet airplanes, in a helicopter. The development, which replaced the piston engine, resulted in a much faster and more powerful aircraft, as well as a monumental revolution in the combat helicopter world. Maxham said Army Aviation became its own branch of service with this key development.
“No one ever thought you could put one in a helicopter,” Maxham said of the innovative engine. “This is what changed Army Aviation forever.”
Maxham expects the one-of-a-kind draws of the Phase II Expansion to generate an influx of interest not only from the community, but also from visitors in other states and continents. About 4,000 visitors passed through the museum’s doors when it first opened 25 years ago, he said. Regular visitors already include an aviation historical society from England, a group who travels to Fort Rucker every few years.
“It will go well beyond the state,” Maxham said. “It will draw people from a long way, continuous states for sure.”
But before these helicopters and other historical pieces can go on permanent display, the Museum Foundation must raise about $45 million dollars. The funds will go towards the construction of the new museum as well as to preparing the long-stored aircraft for exhibition.
During the Phase II Expansion dedication ceremony, Brig. Gen. Michael D. Lundy, commanding general of USAACE and Fort Rucker, reflected on the museum’s role in the lives of Army aviators past and present.
“The Museum is a very special place for our Army and for our branch,” Lundy said. “It is a preservation of our history and it gives us a place where we can come and reflect on what it means to be an Army professional and aviator.”
As a young aviator, Lundy said the Museum was a place that made him reflect upon the history of Army Aviation, as well as his place in its future.
“It was a place where I was able to take my family and think about what my future held,” Lundy said. “It linked me to the past, our legacy. Those that came before us, those that made the sacrifices that make us who we are today. It gave me aspirations, what I could do in my future.”
Soldiers, families and members of the Wiregrass community can take part in the fundraising campaign and become a permanent part of Army Aviation by purchasing one of the bricks that pave the entry way. Bricks can be engraved to honor or memorialize a soldier or family member.
For more information about the Phase II Expansion or how to purchase a brick, contact the U.S. Army Aviation Museum at 598-2508 or www.armyaviationmuseum.org.