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First in flight: Carolinas Aviation Museum president driven to connect kids to history, STEM careers

The brand new state of the art facility is set to open in 2023.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Friday, Dec. 17 is the 118th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. 

The original Wright Flyer they flew is displayed in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., but a replica has been in Charlotte at the Carolinas Aviation Museum. The museum, which has been a Charlotte staple for nearly 30 years, is currently closed for the construction of a brand-new facility. 

"Kids come away with such inspiration seeing these incredible aircraft," Carolinas Aviation Museum President Stephen Saucier said. "For a child, the scale is just enormous."

North Carolina was first in flight and the Carolinas Aviation Museum is where ideas and dreams can take off. Saucier and his team are working to give guests a first-class experience when they visit the museum. 

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"It's driven to provide aviation history, as well as connect to STEM education and connect to these careers," Saucier said. "We've been at that for three decades."

That's 30 years of wowing guests with an up-close look at military aircraft, helicopters and commercial planes significant to North Carolina and South Carolina. The museum also has hands-on learning opportunities and attracts tourists with exhibits like the Miracle on the Hudson

On Jan. 15, 2009, Flight 1549 bound for Charlotte made a crash landing into the icy Hudson River. Shortly after takeoff, the jet's engines were taken out by a flock of geese. Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger pulled off a landing that's among the greatest feats in aviation history. 

That plane was on display from 2011 until 2019, when the museum closed for construction. 

“We have pilots, people who flew on the Miracle on the Hudson that were actual passengers that tell their stories," Saucier said. "We have people that have been through aviation history, wars, breaking barriers and making innovations."

For now, all of those exhibits are in storage at Charlotte Douglas International Airport while the city, airport and museum work collaboratively on the new state-of-the-art facility. The new museum will still be on airport property, but it will be larger and right next to a runway so guests can see real planes in action. 

It’s a unique experience stakeholders hope will make Charlotte a desirable destination.

“We’re so grateful now to think of ourselves even more strongly as an economic catalyst and a cultural attraction on the west side of Charlotte,” Saucier said.

They are currently fundraising for a $25 million capital campaign to get this new museum built. Saucier said they are halfway there and have plans to break ground in the second quarter of 2022.

Contact Chloe Leshner at cleshner@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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