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History of the Southern Museum of Flight

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Museum Entrance

With the approach of the centennial celebration of the city of Birmingham in the mid 1960's, a civic committee began working on projects that would tell the story of the first 100 years of the City of Birmingham. Mrs. Mary Alice Beatty, who, with her husband, Donald Beatty had been pioneers in the establishment of the first airline routes and bases in Central and South America, felt that the Aviation History of Birmingham should be included in these projects.

The Committee’s goal was to establish a regional air museum, to be called The Southeastern Museum of Aviation, and Mrs. Beatty was placed in charge of the project with $400 appropriated for expenses. Using the Beatty’s own collection of memorabilia as a basis, in 1966 she established the first displays in six display cases.  Samford University offered space for the displays, which, by that time, was called The Birmingham Museum of Aviation.  The displays remained at Samford for three years, during which time Mrs. Beatty was the curator. Mrs. Beatty then moved the displays to a location closer to the airport, using the main lobby of the Birmingham Airport Motel, which stood at the location of the present short-term parking deck across the street from the old terminal.  

SMF Staff Member Mike Callahan Assists Students

The Birmingham Aero Club became interested in the project during those years and began a campaign to build a true museum, which would be able to display memorabilia, documents, photographs, aircraft and any other appropriate items to preserve for education of future generations. A working Board of Directors was established from the Birmingham Aero Club leadership. Appropriate land tracts were sought, financing was studied, and architectural plans were begun. The financing was accomplished by donation of air show profits and solicitation of corporate and personal donations. Incorporation of the Southern Museum of Flight was signed on August 5, 1976, ten years after Mrs. Beatty first started her work. 

A BAC member and architect, the late Thurston Sumner, began the plans, which he continued without charge through the present buildings. (His wife, Reese, his daughters, Leslie Gannon and Lynn Jared and her husband Mike, are still active members of the club). Glenn Messer signed the deed for the land. The land was purchased, and construction begun as funds were available. Some aircraft and memorabilia were moved in as soon as a dry spot was assured. It soon became obvious to the Birmingham Aero Club group that funds for maintenance and growth could never be met by admission fees and donations. Therefore, it was decided to donate the land and buildings to the city. The aviation artifacts would be owned and controlled by a separate Board of Directors of the Southern Museum of Flight Foundation.  The Foundation would not be a city function and would allow tax deductible donations to be made for use as deemed appropriate. 

Newly Remodeled Museum Gift Shop

A City Ordinance establishing the Board of Directors under the City of Birmingham was signed on March 11, 1980, and the Museum was formerly opened to the public On September 23, 1983. The first Director under the City of Birmingham was Bud Warner, but Glenn Messer maintained an office until his death, and always had a paternal attitude concerning museum affairs.

The Museum has flourished over the past two decades and now includes in its collection nearly 100 different aircraft in both indoor and outdoor exhibits, along with hundreds of aviation artifacts from Birmingham and the surrounding area.  Numerous educational programs are provided to the citizens of Birmingham on an on-going basis by Museum staff members.

The Museum is now preparing for exhibition what will be one of its most exciting exhibits, a B-25C bomber recovered from Lake Murray in South Carolina.

(The BAC gratefully acknowledges the contribution of Dr. Ed Stevenson in furnishing this historical information)