Dayton could lose aviation hall ceremony

Event has been losing money for years, organizers say.

A more than half-century Dayton tradition of enshrining aviation legends at the National Aviation Hall of Fame could move to an undisclosed location out of state because of financial losses and a need for a bigger venue, organizers say.

Billed as the “Oscars night in aviation,” the black-tie event has brought the biggest aviation legends, from moon walking astronauts to industry pioneers and record-breaking fliers to the annual ceremony staged in recent years at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

“It’s an impressive evening, it’s an Oscars in aviation and it’s a national treasure,” said David Brixey, chairman of the NAHF enshrinement committee.

Organizers say they would prefer to keep the enshrinement ceremony in Dayton if financially viable, and a decision on where to stage the 2017 ceremony with four new inductees could be reached next month.

An unnamed site out of state has offered the use of a venue and an event planner without charge to bring the ceremony there, officials said. Several sites have been under consideration which have not been disclosed, organizers said.

One site in contention is reportedly in Texas, according to Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the National Aviation Heritage Alliance.

Area boosters say they will lobby to retain the ceremony in Dayton. “We believe this is the Holy Grail,” said Phillip L. Parker, Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. “We just want to do everything we possibly can to continue the enshrinement here.”

Brixey said losses have reached $30,000 to $80,000 a year, which are absorbed through other revenues at the non-profit. The ceremony costs about $200,000 to host, offset with corporate sponsors and ticket sales, according to Ron Kaplan, NAHF enshrinement director.

“We’ve been finding our community support here has been very lackluster,” Brixey said. “Of the total budget for the enshrinement, less than 15 percent comes from the Dayton community and we are a national aviation hall of fame, not a Dayton aviation hall of fame.”

The Dayton native said he would like to see the event, if feasible, stay in Dayton.

“I believe that we can move this event and maintain the integrity of the event, so it really comes down to a matter of is there something or someone who has a vested interest in keeping us here that hasn’t stepped up in the past?”

He added: “I’m not overly hopeful of that.”

Dayton has hosted every enshrinement since the Hall of Fame opened in 1962. The ceremony and dinner moved to the Air Force museum — home to the National Aviation Hall of Fame itself — in 2014.

This marks the second time in recent years Dayton has faced the possible loss of the aviation and space heritage ceremony. In 2012, Charlotte, N.C., tried unsuccessfully with its own offer to host the event, but Dayton area businesses and non-profits successfully raised more money to keep it in Dayton.

Parker led the successful drive to retain the enshrinement ceremony more than four years ago.

He said he and other area leaders would like to approach the National Aviation Hall of Fame at a Dec. 1 board meeting to find ways to ensure the enshrinement gets the money it needs and stays in Dayton.

Sculimbrene emphasized what it means to those selected for enshrinement to come to the “birthplace of aviation” for the recognition, to see their plaque on the walls of the Hall itself, and to experience the region’s aviation history first hand.

“This is the birthplace of aviation and so many of the people who are in the Hall of Fame are there because of the Wright brothers,” he said. “… If you take the enshrinement event out of the Hall and out of the birthplace of aviation … I think it makes the event slightly less valuable to the enshrinee.

“We describe this as kind of a pilgrimage for these people,” he said. “So many of these enshrinees connect with where their industry began here in Dayton. It’s an intangible, but it’s a big one.”

Even if the event stays in Dayton, it’s unlikely to remain at the Air Force museum, Kaplan said.

Organizers are searching for a venue that can seat 900 to 1,200 attendees and allow fund-raising events such as a silent auction to raise money for the Hall, Brixey said. The museum sold out with a maximum of 600 attendees last month.

The museum is a not a convention hall so setting up for the production is difficult in the midst of public visitors touring the sprawling aviation history ground, Kaplan said.

“The museum has been fantastic, the support from the museum has been outstanding ever since the decision to move it,” he said. “There’s challenges that are just inherent with operation (in) a public facility.”

If the enshrinement ceremony relocated out of state, that would not prevent a return to Dayton later, Brixey said.

Organizers say there is no talk of moving the enshrinement hall itself. More than 230 aerospace pioneers, from sound barrier-breaking pioneer and test pilot Chuck Yeager to Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, have been inducted over the past five decades.

Aviation history at a glance

The National Aviation Hall of Fame has hosted an enshrinement ceremony since 1962 in Dayton to honor aerospace legends. A more than 140-member board made up of people from around the nation nominates air and space pioneers for induction.

Key facts about the hall

233: Number of inductions

1962: Year opened

17,250: Square footage of the Learning Center inside the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

SOURCE: National Aviation Hall of Fame

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