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International Women’s Air & Space Museum offers unique educational experience

Oct 17, 2017 11:10AM

The Pretty Purple Puddy Tat plane

By Mary Flenner

We all know Ohio as the “birthplace of aviation,” but you may have not realized that brave women were also lighting up the skies before they could vote.  The International Women’s Air and Space Museum showcases their history with stories and artifacts for over 6,000 women.

It’s the only one like it in the world, and it’s right here in downtown Cleveland.  This free museum is a great educational experience, perfect for inspiring the next generation of female fliers.

Located inside Burke Lakefront Airport, you’ll find exhibits on Amelia Earhart, Harriet Quimby (the first woman to fly across the English Channel), Bessie Coleman (the first African American pilot) Katharine Wright (the other Wright “brother,”) Women of WWII, rocket girls and more.

The staff is surprised when they meet young girls who, even today, aren’t aware that they too could become pilots or astronauts one day.  The museum offers the opportunity to teach girls that flying isn’t “just for boys.” 

Often described as a “hidden gem,” the museum features artifacts such as photos and personal possessions, like Amelia Earhart’s scarf and stuffed mascots that have flown all over the world.

You’ll find countless interesting stories, such as Jerrie Mock, who became the first woman to successfully fly around the world after she had complained she was bored one day.

Or of Katharine Wright, the younger sister of the Wright Brothers. While her brothers were at Kitty Hawk and other places, she kept the family business operating smoothly during her off days as a teacher.  The business funded every penny that was spent in the development of the airplane.  Later, when the brothers had successes, engineering societies requested public talks which the Wright Brothers were not prepared for or eager to attempt. Katharine was the one who pressed them to attend such events, wrote their speeches and even chose the clothes they wore. Eventually she joined them in Europe where her outgoing personality gained her celebrity status.

Tracy Pilurs, a single mother of six, who was also a teacher, mechanic, and flight instructor, somehow found time to build her own airplane—the Pretty Purple Puddy Tat—which is on display in the museum.

Or learn about Harriet Quimby, who became America’s first licensed pilot in 1911 and the first woman to pilot her own plane across the dangerous English Channel.  In that time, it wasn’t even socially acceptable for women to wear pants, so you can see a replica of the (very chic) outfit that Quimby created to convert from pants while flying, back to a skirt upon landing.

It’s almost easy to forget what daring pioneers these women were, with seven out of ten early pilots dying in aeronautical accidents.

“There’s a lot of history here and these stories and records would be lost if the museum wasn’t here,” says Executive Director Heather Alexander.

The IWASM also features two authentic flight simulators from the 1940s that were used to train cadets. You can actually sit behind the wheel and get a firsthand look.  A little known fact is that 38 female pilots were killed during service in WWII, with just over 1,000 total accepted into the military program.

Sixty-one women have also made the trip to the final frontier, and you can see all of their names and faces proudly displayed on the museum wall.  With five of the twelve new astronauts from NASA’s 2017 candidates being female, the future is getting brighter for women in the skies. 

Visitors can also get a firsthand look at what it’s like to eat, sleep and exercise in space and view a real NASA switchboard from the Houston Space Center.

Local NASA astronaut, Sunita Williams, of Euclid, stays involved with the museum when possible and according to Alexander, “provides the opportunity for kids to see that, if she (Williams) can do it, I can do it too.”  The museum hosts other NASA astronauts when available, offering another great learning opportunity for kids.

The IWASM hosts children’s events throughout the year, such as Rosie the Riveter Day, Come Fly with Marge, Family Day and their annual Rocket Day celebration.

Four times a year, the museum hosts a dinner series with various interesting speakers and topics, all at a very nominal cost. 

Private tours can also be scheduled for just $3 per person, with a $30 minimum.  Kids’ programs are also available, featuring educational hands-on activities with paper airplanes, whirly gigs and gravity experiments.

Museum hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.  The Fay Gillis Wells Research Center and museum gift shop are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.  The IWASM is easily accessible, located on N. Marginal Road near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

To learn more about the museum’s exhibits and upcoming events, visit IWASM.org.


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