The American Helicopter Museum & Educational Center opened to the public in October 1996 to serve as a "lasting tribute to those men and women who pioneered the development of rotary wing aircraft" and to encourage future generations of aviation pioneers. The Museum enjoys an excellent relationship with the U.S military and with many of the manufacturers of today's civilian and military helicopters.
Many people have played an important role in the founding and building of the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center, but none more so than distinguished aviator Peter Wright. A celebrated veteran of the famed Flying Tigers (1941-42), and founder of Keystone Helicopter, Mr Wright is considered a pioneer of the commercial helicopter industry. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors including the Distinguished Flying Cross. Largely because of his vision, his devotion to the cause and his unceasing efforts the American Helicopter Museum became a reality in 1996.
The Museum's exhibits and archival files chronicle the efforts of pioneers like, Pitcairn, Kellett, Young and Piasecki , and today it continues to record the new and ever expanding role of the U.S. helicopter industry. The continuation of the Museum as a showcase for the helicopter industry and as an important and viable institution was solidified in 2003 when The Robinson Helicopter Company generously endowed it with a gift of $1,000,000.
The history of the American Helicopter Museum can be broken into three major phases, 1) Inception, 2) Maturation 3) Transformation. From humble beginnings, the museum has grown over a period of 17 years in-to a significant tourist destination with a comprehensive collection of rotorcraft and a vision and commitment to become a world class facility.
Phase I: Inception (1993-1996)
The American Helicopter Museum and Education Center was established in July 1993. It began as an initiative of the American Helicopter Society - Philadelphia Chapter (AHS PHL) to commemorate the contributions of the Philadelphia region to the history of the rotary wing industry and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the AHS established in 1944. The AHS convened a group of rotorcraft pioneers and industry leaders who discussed many ideas for the commemoration including a memorial, a museum, historical walk of fame, multiple special events, and other options. Peter Wright, then President of Keystone Helicopters offered to donate several vintage helicopters if the group was willing to establish a museum. There was unanimous agreement. The Charter Team was established and met monthly for nearly two years to develop the charter and bylaws, settle on a name, find a location, build the collection, devel-op educational programs, perform market surveys and raise necessary funds to open the nation's first museum dedicated to rotary wing aviation. Peter Wright was then President, Robert Beggs, Vice President and Robert (Treb) Lipton, Secretary and Counsel. The primary goal of the fledgling museum at that time was to: 1) Preserve Rotary-wing Heritage, 2) Arrest Loss of Artifacts, 3) Recognize Contribution of Helicopters to Society.
The Charter Team established the initial Board of Trustees and by-laws and raised the necessary funds from corporate and individual investors to begin operation. They performed market analyses, facility concept design and after considerable searching for the "right" location, agreed to rent a vacant hangar at the Brandywine Airport in Chester County, PA (previously a production facility for MBB Helicopters) to be the first home for the American Helicopter Museum. In parallel, volunteers from Boeing invested thousands of labor hours restoring a Vertol HUP helicopter (donated by Peter Wright) as the first artifact for the museum. The same group spent countless hours converting the hanger at the Brandywine Airport into a publicly accessible facility. The National Air & Space Museum provided three historically significant rotorcraft (Piasecki PV-3, Bell Model 30, Sikorsky XR4) on long-term loan giving the fledgling museum considerable credibility. The collection of aircraft grew, while the team worked with Creative Productions of Pittsburgh, PA to design a museum layout that captured the essence of rotary wing flight. Engaging educators from across the region, volunteers developed the initial exhibit content and authored a series of docent programs that are still used today. Museum membership grew to nearly 800 Founding Members and on October 18, 1996, the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center opened its doors to the public.
Phase II: Maturation (1996-2003)
Under the leadership of Carl Shafer, first Executive Director, the museum initiated operation. Its collection of rotorcraft grew exponentially. A research library was established and visitation rates climbed steadily. Rotorfest -the world's first major all rotary wing airshow was held in October 1997 making the museum a public attraction. Special events such as a family reunion and commemoration for the Pitcairn family spotted the calendar. The U.S. Marine Corp loaned a V-22 Osprey tiltrotor to the museum in a fly-in event that captured the imagination of the local community. Ann Brown, second Executive Director took the reigns of the museum in 2000. As a seasoned museum professional, she focused on stabilizing the operation and posturing it for growth. "Stubby", a small hands-on helicopter became the museum's mascot and ambassador participating in community events throughout the Delaware valley. Events like the annual Easter Egg Hunt, Fatherfest, and monthly Helicopter rides grew in popularity. Throughout this period, dedicated volunteers contributed tens of thousands of hours operating the facility, serving as docents, building and maintaining exhibits, restoring aircraft, performing research and the multitude of tasks that enabled the museum to operate on a daily basis. "Aerocamp'' became the "summer camp" for kids who love aviation and wanted to build their own gliders. Voted "Best Scientific Outing for Kids" by Aviation History Magazine, "Best Science Museum for Children" by Philadelphia Magazine and "Best Educational Outing for Kids" by Main Line Today were accolades garnered by the museum and its staff.
In 2002, Peter Wright and John Desmond, both members of the Board of Trustees purchased the facility and leased it back to the museum. One year later, Mr. Frank Robinson, President of Robinson Helicopters, made a generous contribution that enabled the museum to acquire the Brandywine facility as its permanent home.
Phase III: Transformation (2005-present)
In 2003, the museum began to plan its transformation. Various design and architectural firms submitted preliminary planning concepts and documents. A capital campaign was initiated with the goal of raising $8M. With the economic downturn beginning in 2007 it became apparent that raising the full amount at one time would be unlikely. At a subsequent strategic planning meeting the Board of Trustees decided to institute a phased approach to expansion. Phase 0 is currently underway which will involve adding square footage and reallocating the use of existing space. We are also adding a new simulator, incorporating audio guides to enhance the visitor experience and developing new themed exhibits. The Women in Aerospace and Technology (WATP) has become our signature educational offering and we have developed partnerships with West Chester University, Drexel University, Widener University and Downingtown STEM Academy.
Today over 35,000 people visit annually and the museum regularly hosts corporate meetings, birthday parties, wedding and other life cycle events. In 2005 the Board published its Strategic Plan, which was updated in 2012, providing a framework for the continued growth of the American Helicopter Museum and Education Center as a world class destination.