An ace public historian shares some of her favorite aviation artifacts.
The New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, is aerospace heaven: vast hangars teeming with aircraft of every vintage, size, and configuration set off with an impressive array of eye-catching exhibits. UMass Amherst alumna Amanda Goodheart Parks ’10G, the museum’s director of education, glides happily through the wondrous clutter, trailed by groups of students ranging from preschoolers right on up to young adults who are fast-tracking into aerospace engineering programs.
Even so, she was hired thanks to one of her great strengths. “I love to teach,” she says. “I love engaging people and sharing my love of history with others.”
As an undergraduate at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, Goodheart Parks wanted to teach high school history and double-majored in history and education. She took a course in public history.
“It changed my life,” Goodheart Parks says. “I realized that I wanted to get all people engaged with the past, not just high school students.” Internships at nearby Mystic Seaport and the Preservation Society of Newport County redoubled her resolve and led her into UMass Amherst’s graduate program in public history. She calls that “a game-changer for me. The program is internationally recognized and taught by leaders in the field—rock stars. I was thrilled to study under them.” (Having gotten her master’s degree in 2010, she is pursuing her PhD with the program and will defend her dissertation this spring.)
Further internships, including one at Historic Deerfield, led to four years down the road working at the Springfield Museums in their education department. There Goodheart Parks gained new skills teaching, coordinating educational programs, and working with docents. When the New England Air Museum beckoned, she was excited but had to confront a steep learning curve.
“My first couple of months here were a crash course—pun intended—on the technical aspects of aerospace science,” she recalls. “Our amazing staff and volunteers, many of whom are retired pilots and engineers, were my mentors. They gave me a real appreciation of the history of aerospace engineering and science.
“Now,” she continues, “when I look at a jet engine, I understand the science behind its design, but I also see it as something more than a piece of machinery. I use my training as a public historian to put that engine into a historical context and, in doing so, make it meaningful and relevant to visitors.”
Below, Goodheart Parks highlights a few of the museum’s gems, large and small.
“Museum visitors are often surprised to learn the state of Connecticut has played an important role in the history of helicopter flight. Local aviation pioneer Charles Kaman is one noteworthy example of our region’s aerospace legacy. His company, Kaman Aircraft, patented several groundbreaking helicopter advancements, including the technology found in the Kaman SH-2F Seasprite. It’s a visitor favorite, especially during Open Cockpit Days, when it is open to the public. Its instrument panel includes over 100 individual gauges, dials, and controls.”
“When visitors see the Sikorsky VS-44A Excambian for the first time, they often experience an overwhelming sense of wonder. The aircraft certainly has a commanding presence. It’s nearly 30 feet tall, with a wingspan of just under 80 feet. With its impressively sculpted fuselage, four sets of propellers, and fully restored 1940s interior, the Excambian is the world’s sole-surviving, American-built, four-engine transatlantic passenger airliner. Built in Connecticut in 1942, it was the Sikorsky company’s answer to Boeing’s famous Clipper flying boats of the 1930s and early 1940s. After undergoing a painstaking, 10-year-long restoration during the 1980s, the Excambian was added to the museum’s permanent exhibits and has been the crown jewel of our collection ever since.”
“The Bunce-Curtiss pusher is my favorite aircraft in the collection. Although it looks nothing like a modern airplane—most visitors say it reminds them of a bicycle—it’s an incredible example of early-20th-century technology. Built in 1912, it’s little more than canvas and bamboo held together with tension wires, yet somehow it managed to fly—sort of. We don’t know if its builder ever achieved sustained, controllable flight in his pusher, but we do know that museum volunteers found the wreckage of this aircraft in a barn in the 1960s. Our restoration team restored it to its former glory and it has been on display at the museum ever since.”