My Catawba County

The Largest Aviation Museum in NC

The Largest Aviation Museum in NC

Did you know that Hickory is home to the largest aviation museum in North Carolina? The Hickory Aviation Museum (HAM) is dedicated to maintaining artifacts from the Golden Age of Aviation – and with its extensive collection of military aircraft, it’s a great place to learn more about the country's military history this Memorial Day weekend (or any time of year!). We asked HAM volunteer staff member Bill Baker to tell us more about this local gem.

How and when did the Hickory Aviation Museum get started?
The Museum obtained the first plane in the late 1990s, an FJ-3 Fury Korean War era fighter jet that was located in a neighboring town’s playground/park. Many parts and pieces were missing and it was used by the local kids.  The Kirby brothers, Kyle and Kregg, asked the authorities if they could have it and they were told yes. They then approached the NC National Guard and asked if they could lift the aircraft with a helicopter, which they did and the plane was aerially transported to Hickory Regional Airport. The Kirby brothers are lifetime military aviation enthusiasts and they obtained two other planes over the next few years, all three needing restoration.  In 2007, the City of Hickory provided the south end of the airport terminal building for our use, and the Hickory Aviation Museum opened its doors. 

What is the mission of the Hickory Aviation Museum?
HAM is dedicated to maintaining the facts and artifacts of the Golden Age of Aviation. The Museum provides a unique opportunity for all generations to learn and appreciate aviation history. We achieve this by adding new exhibits and aircraft on a regular basis. 

What kinds of aircraft will people see when they visit the Museum?
We have many types of military aircraft and helicopters spanning nine decades from the 1940s up to our F/A-18A Blue Angels Hornet, which was retired from US Navy service in 2020. The majority of our inventory either served in the US Navy or US Marine Corps. We do have three planes that were retired from the US Air Force. The various missions of the aircraft include test and evaluation, fighters, attack/bombers, anti-submarine warfare, and training.

Specific examples:

Lockheed P-3C Orion:  Anti-submarine warfare patrol aircraft, the only P-3C in the US that is fully open inside to tour for visitors, this plane served the US Navy for 48 years. The interior is presented as to how this aircraft looked when operational.

General Motors Eastern Aircraft Division FM-2 Wildcat:  WWII fighter plane that flew combat missions during WWII in the Pacific Theater, and upon return to the US after the war, crashed into Lake Michigan in 1945.  The plane was located and raised in the 1990s and restored.  It is a very rare airplane, less than 30 of the 5,280 GMEAD Wildcats that were built remain either flyable or on display.

Boeing F/A-18A Legacy Hornet:  Flew as an attack/fighter jet for parts of three decades with USMC/USN, and then flew its final years as one of the Blue Angel Flight Demonstration Team aircraft until it was retired in 2020 and flown into Hickory. The Blue Angels now fly the Super Hornet, and this paint scheme is one of the most recognizable in the world.  #5 is the first aircraft that greets our visitors when entering our display area. 

Many of our other aircraft have unique histories. Our A-7 Corsair and our A-4 Skyhawk flew hundreds of attack/bombing missions in Vietnam. Our F-4B Phantom was flying as part of the Naval Blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Our nearly 75-year-old F-105B is the second oldest “Thunderchief” remaining; this aircraft did cold weather testing in Alaska in 1958 before setting a flight time record from Alaska to Florida in 1959 in less than 5½ hours. Our AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter flew many combat missions in Afghanistan until retirement in 2020.  Our F-14D Tomcat fighter jet flew the last official US Navy flight in 2006 during the retirement ceremony.   

What do you consider to be the most unusual or unique aircraft housed at the Museum, and why?
The Curtiss XF15C-1 Stingeree is very unique, as it was developed during WWII with the propeller driven power-plant but also with a jet engine in the rear designed for extra speed.  By the time it was developed, the war was months from ending. The US captured all of the German jet aircraft prototypes and information on top of what was being developed already by the military, so it was obsolete by 1946 with jet aircraft on the horizon. During flight testing, the first prototype crashed and was destroyed in 1945, the second was scrapped, and this airframe managed to sit for decades in a hangar untouched before being relocated to a museum in the New England area. HAM obtained it in 2017. Most prototype aircraft over the years have no surviving airframes due to crashes or being scrapped, so this is an extremely rare plane. 

What else can people see and do at the Museum?
The interior of the Hickory Aviation Museum has artifacts and memorabilia ranging from WWII to present day, including a display about WWII fighter plane pilots and NC natives Bill and George Preddy provided by the Preddy Foundation. Models are on display that show how aircraft design changed from the Wright Flyer to The F/A-18 Hornet. The Wall of Honor is inside of the museum, honoring members of our organization and local people who are veterans, and our Memorial Wall honors those that have passed. We also have ejection seats, flights suits/helmets and uniforms. 

Our Naval Aviation Annex is located in the north end of the building. Visitors can learn a little about carrier aviation. Various artifacts are on display, including an F-14 Camera Pod and two 20mm Vulcan cannons, one carried in an F-14 and the other in an F/A-18. USN and USMC uniforms are on display along with models of a WWII era aircraft carrier and a modern Nimitz Class Carrier.

Our curators are constantly rotating displays due to the high number of repeat visitors; we like to keep displays fresh and updated as much as possible. Many items are donated by local area residents or in memory of family members from past conflicts.

What do you hope visitors will learn from their visit to the Museum?
Many of our visitors have no exposure to aviation in general or military aviation specifically, so this is their first time learning about airplanes and helicopters, the specific missions, and the people who flew and maintained them.

We have a lot of youngsters who visit, and we hope a visit sparks interest in learning more about aviation in general or maybe a desire to pursue military or commercial aviation is created. Because of our varied array of aircraft, we cover almost every era and mission since WWII to the present. Several teens on tours have joined our volunteer staff after visiting.

Who operates and maintains the Museum, and how can the community get involved?
The Museum is fully staffed by volunteers under the umbrella name Sabre Society of North Carolina, and we’re in transition to the name Hickory Aviation Museum, Inc.  There are plenty of museum jobs that people can do, from tour guide, cleaning aircraft, model building and repair, gift shop, etc.  Our staff is comprised of former military, both with aviation and non-aviation backgrounds, as well as members that have never served but enjoy the camaraderie of being part of a team and they want to serve their community.  Many new volunteers have had zero exposure to military aircraft but want to be tour guides and with a wealth of knowledge available to teach them, it’s easy to accomplish.  Our volunteer age range is from 16 to 83!

We are a registered 501c nonprofit and we rely on donations from our visitors.  We enjoy a terrific partnership with the City of Hickory and Airport Management, so we’re able to return 100% of all donations directly into the museum for aircraft acquisition, repairs, restorations, displays, etc. 

Most importantly, we do not charge any admission fee to visit us!  We also welcome groups to tour the museum. We ask that any group larger than 10 fill out the tour group request form on our webpage.  We’ve had groups of 125+!  Summer is usually our busiest times for tours, and our volunteer tour group coordinator works hard to accommodate any/all requests. 

We often support civic events such as parades, air shows, and festivals with our F-14 and F/A-18 forward sections that are mounted to trailers. We open the cockpits and allow the public to sit in an actual fighter jet cockpit.

Is there anything else you would like to add about the Museum?
HAM is the largest aviation museum in North Carolina, and we have exciting plans for future expansion that will enable us to bring most of our aircraft inside and bring more visitors into the area, which will benefit our tourism partners as well.  We are truly an international destination with visitors from all over the world.  We are currently open six days a week, Tuesday-Sunday, hours as listed on our webpage.

From our webpage, there are links to all our social media sites; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, with Facebook being the main way we keep followers updated with aviation history and stories as well as upcoming events, aircraft acquisitions etc. 

We have a monthly meeting that is held on the 4th Saturday of most months, the public is welcome to attend to meet us and see the museum and maybe think about volunteering.  We’ve recently reintroduced a guest speaker for every meeting.  There is no cost, and people are under no obligation to join the museum.