A rare wooden propeller signed by Orville Wright and valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars headed from Dayton to the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum in Denver.
The National Aviation Hall of Fame, inside Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, has owned the Wright Model K propeller since it was donated in 2004, and will loan the early aviation artifact to the Denver museum for five years.
“It’s an amazing piece of aviation history,” said Matthew Burchette, curator at the Wings Over the Rockies. “We are really, really excited that the Hall of Fame would even consider us to be worthy of such an artifact.”
NAHF President Michael J. Quiello, said displaying the artifact in Denver will expand the NAHF’s national brand recognition and tell the story of the birthplace of aviation to a new audience. Wings Over the Rockies attracts about 150,000 visitors a year. A museum crew flew to Dayton in a private plane to personally pick up the propeller last week.
“This prop is the only aviation artifact that’s signed by a Wright brother that we know of in the world,” he said. “The prop is really a national treasure. It doesn’t belong to the Hall of Fame. It belongs to the American people. … We’ll be doing more of this outreach to the country to show people what Dayton has to offer.”
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But not everyone is happy with the move. U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, objected Wednesday to shipping the Hall of Fame’s “only significant artifact” out of Dayton.
“The National Aviation Hall of Fame is struggling financially,” he said in a statement. “Sending its chief artifact to another museum is certain only to worsen that problem.”
The Wright brothers artifact was at the center of a controversy last year when Turner called on the museum to cease talk of selling artifacts.
A NAHF leader has said the non-profit had pondered the idea, but rejected it two years before Turner brought up the issue.
Turner, who has said he would probe the NAHF’s management of its finances, appointed a “blue ribbon panel” in March 2017 to recommend how the non-profit could improve its financial standing after losing money for years. The panel’s report has not yet been publicly released.
“The Blue Ribbon Panel I’ve established is working on its conclusions and I look forward to NAHF leadership coming to the table to talk about reasonable solutions about how it plans to work with our community to get back in good standing,” Turner said. “Certainly sending its ‘only significant artifact’ out of our community is not going to help.”
Quiello said Tuesday he did not understand Turner’s most recent comments, saying in an email the Hall “did not monetize the prop, we still own it,” and loaning the artifact was part of a national strategy to expand brand recognition.
The historic propeller was not displayed in Dayton, which would have meant a “significant” cost and not expanded the NAHF’s reach nationally, he said.
“… There’s probably a huge value to this if we wanted to monetize it (but) we believe the value is having this national treasure travel around the United States and highlight the Hall of Fame is in Dayton, Ohio,” he said in an interview.
He added the Turner-appointed panel had not spoken to the NAHF while drafting recommendations. Quiello said he was open to what the panel can do to restore the NAHF’s reputation and suggestions to get the Dayton community more involved in a $5 million fund-raising campaign to renovate the Hall of Fame’s Learning Center into an updated, more interactive exhibit place.
‘Not a bad thing’
Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the National Aviation Heritage Alliance, said making people aware of Dayton by loaning the artifact to Wings over the Rockies was “not a bad thing.”
“Telling people about the things that we have in this area is a huge challenge for all of us,” he said. “Any way you can make people aware there are things to see in Dayton, the birthplace of aviation … is a positive.”
The nearly 10-foot-long propeller will be displayed in a custom-made Plexiglas case protected from ultraviolet rays, Burchette said. The long-term loan was at no cost, he said.
“The main idea is we want people to view it, but obviously … we don’t want people touching it and we certainly don’t want it stolen,” he said.
At the Hall of Fame’s request, the propeller will be insured, which will require the artifact be appraised for its value today, according to Quiello.
In 2013, a Texas aviation history authority estimated the propeller believed to have flown on a Wright brothers-built float plane was worth $275,000.
In an interview last year with the Dayton Daily News, Quiello said the artifact could be worth as much as seven figures.
Orville Wright signed the vintage 1915 spruce propeller in November 1944. A Wright Aeroplane Co. employee had owned the artifact. An appraisal history said the Rev. Richard Wilhelm Jr., and his brother, Joe, received the propeller from their father, and took it to Wright at his Oakwood mansion on Hawthorn Hill for his signature.
A former NAHF trustee bought the propeller for $37,000 and donated it to the Hall of Fame. Museums across the country had displayed the artifact on loan before the purchase.
Wings Over the Rockies was chosen to host the National Aviation Hall of Fame’s annual black-tie enshrinement ceremony of air and space legends in 2019, dubbed the Oscar’s Night in Aviation.
For more than half a century, the yearly event had been in the Dayton region until NAHF leaders decided to take the enshrinement on the road last year to Fort Worth, Texas in part to awareness about the hall nationally. The decision upset many local and state organizers who had lobbied hard to keep the glittering celebratory occasion that attracted Hollywood stars and astronauts to the birthplace of aviation for decades. This year, the enshrinement will take the stage in Washington, D.C., and return to Dayton in 2020.