Building a Dream

In Uncategorized on May 26, 2018 by hillermuseum

Stanley Hiller and the 20th Anniversary of
The Hiller Aviation Museum

by Jon Welte

Hiller Aircraft ceased to exist as an independent company in 1964, when it was purchased by and became a division of Maryland-based Fairchild Aircraft. Stanley Hiller Jr. remained involved with the merged entity for a short time, but ultimately left aerospace altogether and went on to a successful career reorganizing failed and struggling companies in a wide range of industries.

The dream of flight was one that was seldom far from Hiller’s heart, however. While the original Hiller Aircraft factory in Menlo Park was shuttered not long after the merger with Fairchild, Hiller retained many of its most iconic aircraft. As time went on, Hiller acquired a substantial collection of additional historic aircraft and aircraft replicas, many with special significance to the development of aviation in Northern California. The first “Hiller Aviation Museum” was a storage facility located in Redwood City that by the mid-1980s provided limited opportunities for public viewing of the collection. Space was limited, and by the early 1990s Hiller was planning a more appropriate venue for use as a showcase for Northern California’s contributions to aerospace.

By 1994, planning focused on a parcel of land available at San Carlos Airport. Through the first half of the 20th century San Carlos had boasted not one but two airports. Cooley Field operated alongside (and, in rainy weather, often beneath) the sloughs in modern Redwood Shores. The official San Carlos Airport was on higher ground between the Southern Pacific Railroad and Bayshore Highway. In 1950 both fields were replaced by a new San Carlos Airport at the current location, just east of the modern Bayshore Freeway. For Hiller, it seemed to many a perfect location.

Stan Hiller cultivated critical support for the new project while recruiting a team of local community and aviation leaders to help guide the organization through its foundational phase. In 1995 the San Carlos City Council provided unanimous support to the project, and on March 5, 1996, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors – responsible for administration of San Carlos Airport – did the same. Groundbreaking was held in October of that year, although in one of many Museum-related ironies the actual dirt used for the ceremonial first spade at the thoroughly-paved location was trucked in specifically for the event.

Construction was ongoing through most of 1996 and all of 1997. The Museum comprised three discrete structures: a northern building to house Museum offices, the library, and the Restoration Shop, a large, open hangar-type Gallery to house the aircraft themselves, and a central Atrium connecting the two to serve the additional purpose of providing a large space for special events. Operations shifted from the storage facility in Redwood City to a trailer parked behind the still-under-construction buildings. The Briefings newsletter, originally a mimeographed bulletin highlighting stories relating to aircraft on display or under restoration at the “old” museum, boasted the new San Carlos address starting in 1997. During this time the Hiller Aviation Museum acquired a remarkable new tool for dissemination information about the ongoing project: its own website.

As construction progressed, historic aircraft began to transfer to their new home. By nature of its size, the Boeing Condor was one of the first to be installed. Among the largest aircraft hanging suspended in any museum, hoisting the Condor into proper position required removing the topmost section of its vertical stabilizer. Additional aircraft soon arrived as well, ranging from the full-scale replica of the Marriott Avitor to the John Montgomery glider recreations. Interestingly, the first aircraft to go on exhibit at San Carlos Airport was not an airplane or helicopter positioned within the Museum, but rather the Hiller UH-12E-5. This unique helicopter was the only 5-seat variant of the venerable Hiller 360/UH-12 ever built. It was emplaced at its current location at the Burger King restaurant at San Carlos Airport in 1997, a year before the Museum itself opened to the public.

The Hiller Aviation Museum opened on June 5, 1998. Two ribbons were cut to mark the occasion. Stan Hiller used traditional scissors at the front of the Museum to admit the opening day crowd. Later that day a second ribbon was cut in more spectacular fashion by a Stearman biplane flying down the San Carlos Airport runway, starting a tradition of special airborne events that continues at the Hiller Aviation Museum to this day.

Stanley Hiller Jr. passed away in 2006. He saw his vision for a museum dedicated to preserving Northern California’s history of aviation innovation come fully to fruition, and left behind a legacy of creativity in aircraft design and of entrepreneurial perseverance. Since Opening Day in 1998, over one million visitors have found inspiration at the Hiller Aviation Museum.

This June Hiller Aviation Museum celebrates its twentieth anniversary. The Museum will celebrate the occasion with a bold new exterior, newly updated exhibits, special presentations on the life of Stanley Hiller Jr. and spectacular additions to this year’s Biggest Little Airshow on Saturday, June 2. Join the excitement as the Hiller Aviation Museum celebrates the past, honors its visionary founder, and looks forward to the next twenty years.


Briefings newsletter, Winter/Spring 1994 – Fall 1998

Rep, Jerry. Hiller Aviation Institute Museum, 2000

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