By Henry M. Holden
The new year brought revitalization to the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame. New volunteers, additional exhibits, physical improvements and new leadership all came together with positive results.
In December 2006, Shea Oakley accepted the position as the museum’s executive director, succeeding acting director Steve Riethof. In 2001, Oakley joined the museum staff as a volunteer docent and later did touring and administrative work as a paid part-time employee. In 2005, he became a member of the board of trustees, serving as its treasurer.
“Steve has been both a good friend and a great mentor,” said Oakley. “Steve and our executive assistant Karen Russo are keystones to the architecture of the museum. They’ve done more than their share of the “heavy lifting” during this period and deserve all the praise we bestow on them. I’ve learned so much from Steve, and I’m very glad he’s still part of our team as vice president of the board and associate director. Throughout 2005, Riethof served as an unpaid acting director.
“He will continue as an active volunteer for the museum,” Oakley said.
Oakley has been active in aviation since his teenage years. At 16 years old, he became one of the first teenage interns with the New York and New Jersey Port Authority’s JFK Airport Operations Unit. He worked part time at Kennedy and then at Newark airports throughout his college years at the Florida Institute of Technology, where he earned a degree in aviation management. During that same period, he co-founded the Tri-State Airline Historical Society; at 20, he organized Airliners Northeast, the first airline collectibles show held in the New York metro area. In 1999, he founded Ancient Skies Collectibles, which sells airline memorabilia.
Like most small aviation museums, NJAHOF struggled for years to see fiscal daylight
“We’ve made great fiscal progress,” said Oakley. “The museum is operating in the black for the first time in quite a while. In fact, we’re in the best financial condition we’ve seen in many years. Part of that came about with a management realignment. Our volunteer staff tripled in size since 2005, and that’s helped reduce our overhead. We have a new volunteer coordinator and a new volunteer corps. The new faces are revitalizing the museum. They’re bringing fresh ideas and real dedication to the museum and its mission.”
The staff is working hard on marketing the museum.
“Bergen County is one of the most densely populated communities in the United States,” Oakley said. “We’ve gone out and marketed the museum to the community, and we’re now getting a lot of new visitors. A transit bus that comes from New York City stops nearby. As a result, attendance is up substantially, both in terms of the number of visitors and the income derived from the admissions.”
Some changes at NJAHOF were very difficult, but the result is that the museum is stronger today than it has been for many years.
“I think the team efforts of the employees, the volunteers and the board of trustees, along with marketing and the reduction of some other costs, have helped turn it around,” said Oakley. “These good things didn’t happen by accident. They’re the result of hard work by many people, bringing their talents to bear on what was, 13 months ago, an endangered institution.
New exhibits and restorations
The museum’s revitalization began with several restoration and renewal projects and an aviation education center that will have four major new exhibits by the end of this year.
“Fresh carpet and paint grace the front offices, and other restorative work has been going on outside,” Oakley said. “The museum’s CG-53 Coast Guard helicopter has been mostly restored, and the long-awaited physical restoration of the Grumman OV-1 Mohawk aircraft began last January. A newly renovated upstairs tower room will soon reopen to the public. Our volunteer corps will soon refurbish the only MASH unit display in the United States.”
Oakley said they’ve already seeing increased numbers of visitors to the new exhibits.
“We have the new second floor Richard E. Byrd Exhibit, kindly provided by William N. Moxley, former Hall of Fame president,” he said. “Another new exhibit, located in the great room, is dedicated to the 1970s New Jersey-based People Express Airlines. We’re also planning a display on the science of flight, a Civil Air Patrol 65th anniversary exhibit and a permanent 9/11 memorial.”
The New Jersey chapter of the Ninety-Nines women pilots organization is well on its way to completing a renovation and upgrade to the Women in Aviation exhibit. It will include multiple video presentations on new flat-screen TVs. A recent contribution of two lighted display cases now enhances the People Express Airlines and Richard E. Byrd exhibits.
“We just acquired one of two Convair 880s that were in a back field at the Atlantic City International Airport,” said Oakley. “They were once used by the FAA at its technical center there. We’re getting the forward section of the fuselage, including the cockpit. It’ll be the first jet we have in the museum.”
According to Niall Booth, Convair 880/990 expert and author, as of December 2005 only nine Convair 880 airframes are left in the world—five in the United States and one each in Haiti, Portugal, Venezuela and South Africa. None are airworthy and the only one properly preserved is Elvis Presley’s Lisa Marie (named after his daughter), at Graceland, in Memphis, Tenn.
“All of these programs are just the beginning of new and exciting things that will be happening at the museum in the coming months,” Oakley said. “We’re looking to the years ahead with newborn vision and confidence. In every facet of our operation, we’re shifting into high gear.”
For more information, visit [http://www.njahof.org].