Life’s a Picnic at the Heber Valley Aero Museum
Photography: Patrick Cone
Since 2001, thousands of people have flocked to the Heber Valley Airshow and Fly-In at Russ McDonald Field. They’ve seen rare, visiting vintage airplanes from the Hollings Foundation and watched aerobatic demonstrations performed by local pilots. Many have danced the night away at the air show’s big band hangar dance, reminiscent of WWII gatherings so fondly remembered by veterans. It has become one of the most popular summer events in Wasatch County.
Less known but closely associated with the annual air show is the wonderfully appealing Heber Valley Aero Museum located in Hangar One at the center of McDonald Field. This location is appropriate for a facility that has so much “heart.” According to museum president, Steve Guenard, “You can find other aero museums with more and bigger planes, but our museum is unique because it focuses on people. I call it ‘picnic aviation,’ because it’s welcoming and inclusive.”
That picnic quality is apparent even before you enter Hangar One. A park-style table and bench outside the hangar door welcome you to sit down and enjoy the local view. Inside the hangar, the view is more akin to “Dagwood’s Closet” as you look around at the charming clutter of grassroots memorabilia donated by local pilots and aviation enthusiasts. The floors, walls and ceiling of the building are packed with interesting “stuff” that give this museum a decidedly down-to-earth feel. The hangar/museum is full of memories, pictures and extraordinary stories. Here you can find an aging accident report detailing a 1934 crash of a Western Air Express airplane above Alta Canyon or view a 1980s Air Cal flight attendant uniform. Above your head, you’ll see a dummy dangling from a seat and parachute, a reenactment of an ejection from a disabled F-15, experienced by local airman Chris Haerter. A vintage J-3 Cub aircraft hangs from the opposite side of the hangar. And there’s more.
To fully appreciate the museum, one must know its beginning. It was founded in 2000 by Ed Strauchen, Tom Vetter and Steve Guenard, three retired airline pilots with a lifelong passion for airplanes, aviation history and a shared dream to create an aero museum utilizing Ed’s large, half-empty hangar and the extraordinary experiences of many local pilots. Russ McDonald Field was named after the much loved and recently deceased pilot, who for years, entertained spectators every Saturday morning with demonstrations in his restored P51. The field was an ideal location for the museum as many airline, military and civilian pilots kept their airplanes hangared there.
Among the local historic resources were several WWII pilots with incredible experiences willing to share their stories. After nearly a year’s work, displays in the hangar’s upstairs library feature the military experiences of Malcom McGregor, Harry Moyer, Jack Wells, and Burnis Watts, (whom we sadly just lost in March of this year. It has been decided that this year’s air show will be held in his honor). These local veterans’ stories include first hand accounts of D-Day, the German Kestle Raid, prison camps and aerial warfare. Along with the displays, their recollections have been videotaped and are available for viewing to anyone who can spend a few hours in the quiet of the museum’s cozy library.
For visitors with less time to browse, the museum’s ground floor exhibits are very appealing. Cabinet displays lining two hangar walls feature posters, photos and artifacts categorized by “historic,” “commercial,” “military” and “women in aviation.” On occasion, the hangar plays host to an immaculately restored 1938 PT Stearman owned by the Commemorative Air Force and flown locally by Steve Guenard.
The museum’s overflowing memorabilia is a welcome addition to the ongoing daily bustle at McDonald Field. Jagged Wasatch Mountain peaks tower above green fields, pastures and the quaint towns of Heber City and Midway. The view, arresting with earthly beauty; the grassroots museum; and the sound and movement of airport activities all seem to fit together like old friends.
On weekdays, the field is usually uncrowded. The few visitors who do drop by can grab one of the white plastic chairs stacked just inside the museum hangar door and sit and enjoy the mountain view or watch the activity of private and corporate airplanes. Local pilots often drop by just to chat. There is a front-porch, small-town feel to these informal gatherings, but the main conversation is flying.
Among this group will likely be a museum docent, one of our WWII vets, retired pilots, or local aviation enthusiasts like Billy Spears, who alone has donated hundred of hours to the museum. If you love airplanes, this is the place to be on a warm summer afternoon, looking at fabulous mountain views, watching airplanes, surrounded by good company and a milieu of aviation history. With a little imagination, you can almost see Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart or Eddie Rickenbacher climbing down from the aged photos on the hangar walls to join the conversation.
At the Wasatch Aero Museum, old pilots can remember, young pilots can learn and dream, and everyone can enjoy. That is how the founders envisioned the facility during the planning stages of the museum six years ago. Ed Strauchen’s widow, Myra, says, “I think Ed would be very proud of how this museum has continued. For him, nothing was impossible, and he planned to spend a lot of his retirement developing and supporting the museum’s purpose.”
Sadly, that purpose ended for Ed on January 16, 2003, when he died with his best friend, Bob Koch, in a Russian Yak 52 that crashed a short distance from his beloved museum. A few months later, museum co-founder Tom Vetter passed away from cancer. Of the original founders, only Steve Guenard is left, supported by Myra and many devoted museum volunteers. Like so much of aviation these days, the Heber Valley Aero Museum is “in a state of flux” and struggles financially. This grassroots people’s museum, a diamond-in-the-rough, depends on public support. Steve, Myra and museum docents invite you to visit soon.
Freelance writer Laurel Ross has lived with her family in Park City for 25 years. A retired flight attendant married to a pilot, she has had a lifelong passion for aviation and its history.
The Heber Valley Aero Museum is located at the Russ McDonald Field in Heber City and is open May 1 through October 1, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Thursday – Sunday or any time by appointment. 435.657.1826 or firstname.lastname@example.org.