Tyson looks back at VAHS
for VAHS newsletter Winter 2021-2022
by Paul Sullivan
A VAHS Founder Looks Back
Ray Tyson spends more time around the house in Ashland these days than he did in his younger years. And that’s okay, now that he’s working on his 91st birthday.
Tyson, by his own account, lived for airplanes and flying-especially in the Old Dominion, and is a founder of the Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society.
Decades ago, in the mid-70s, he was a regular visitor to Shannon Airport in his clean little Cessna 140.
There were enough like-minded aviation enthusiasts in Virginia that a dozen of them got together at Shannon Airport in Nov. 1977, led by Morton W. Lester of Martinsville, to create the Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society.
“They called me (to join) because they thought I had a secretary,” he laughed.
“The idea was to conserve the history of aviation in Virginia,” said Tyson,
But over the next few years, the primary aim of the new group morphed from the original focus on the state’s rich aviation history, to the creation and building of a museum, he said.
As anyone associated with the Shannon museum soon learns, it has had three distinct incarnations or “lives,” ironically starting at Shannon Airport, where Sid Shannon Jr. had acquired a number of rare antique airplanes. In the 70s, he built a museum for his gradually growing fleet, opening the first Shannon Air Museum with 13 planes in 1976. This fact no doubt gave a shot in the arm to the aviation history movement.
Soon after it’s beginning, the Society also started a Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame honoring those who have made substantial contributions to aerospace history. With new honorees generally added yearly, the total now stands at about 100 individuals representing a broad cross-section of the state.
The Hall of Fame is located in the Shannon Air Museum and is a vital part of the story of aerospace development in Virginia.
Sid Shannon, Jr died unexpectedly in 1981 at age 58. His passing ultimately led to his cherished antique planes and huge collection of related artifacts moving to Richmond, where they became the core of a new Virginia Aviation Museum at the north end of Richmond International Airport.
Suddenly, the Society found itself in the museum business. That era lasted some 30 years until conflicts involving the museum and the state science museum led to the dissolution of the aviation museum.
At that point, in 2014, Luke Kurtas, then the new owner of Shannon Airport, stepped in to acquire the aircraft and other artifacts, bringing things back to Fredericksburg, housing all in an extensively renovated and well-appointed hangar and other buildings where they remain.
Ray Tyson, who “goes way back” in general aviation, remembers it all. “I soloed in 1948 and had my private pilots license two weeks before I got out of high school,” he said.
“I flew for 68 years,” he added.
“In 1968 I sold Cessnas at North Field Airport. I ran the airport, the flight training school, charter service, the shop and sold airplanes. I looked around and the only person making money was the man selling insurance. So I did that.”
Which is how Tyson wound up working for the late Frank Hargrove for 30 years, as an insurance agent for Hargrove Insurance Agency in Hanover County.
“He (Hargrove) loved airplanes as much as I did.”
“I knew guys who went back (flying) almost to 1903,” said Tyson.
Tyson, now 90, quit flying 18 months ago and while aviation was the love of his life from age 8 on, he knew as all must sooner or later, that time would change that eventually. He is not bitter.
His lifetime of viewing aviation history and museums has taught hard lessons, as he explains it. An aviation museum is an extremely expensive thing to build and grow and make meaningful and attractive. Even then, he said, there are not a lot of people-especially younger people in the 21st Century-who care about aviation and airplanes as they did a century ago when it was all new and thrilling.
In that era, Tyson said, a single machine flying over a town could draw hundreds of folks outside to look up. “Now, I don’t think many people would look up if the Concorde flew over.”
Tyson applauds what Kurtas has done with the Shannon Collection, and the fact that it has continued to grow with the acquisition of the historic DC-3 airliner, and other artifacts and aircraft, for example.
As for the VAHS, which alone could not support the museum it operated in Richmond without input from wealthy individuals, Tyson said it raised substantial funds through donations, and that was a necessity, but he isn’t sure it would be sufficient without that additional funding.
One avenue for raising large donations, he suggested, is to establish a naming fund for well-heeled individuals to donate to the museum in return for getting the right to name something. When the museum was in Richmond, this worked well and resulted in a number of substantial donations.
Among these were a $50,000 gift that allowed the museum to set up a theater showing aviation-related movies.
In the longer term, Tyson said he is inclined to think the VAHS may shift more toward becoming an aviation-oriented social organization.