OTBP: Piper Aviation Museum

Off the Beaten Path: Piper Aviation Museum

Patti and Tom Burkett

One of the reasons we love our Roadtrek RV is that it’s useful for so many things beyond traveling.

We’ve used it to haul lumber home for a project, and the big rear bed to transport wedding dresses to a church.  We like to think of it as our RUV, recreational utility vehicle.

So we were reminded of our RUV when we stopped off at the Piper Aviation Museum in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania (see interactive map below) to visit a small and highly specialized museum.  The museum is in a building that used to be a silk fabric factory along an industrial runway at the edge of town.

It’s history dates to when Clarence and Gordon Taylor opened their first factory in Rochester, New York in 1927, and had some success until Gordon died in an accident and the factory burned down in 1929.

The Great Depression looked like it would spell the end of their enterprise until the town of Bradford, Pennsylvania offered them a big tax break to move into the old silk factory and local oil man William Piper made an investment to help them with the move and the purchase of new equipment.  Shortly thereafter, Piper bought the rest of the company from Taylor, and went into production on an American icon, the Piper Cub airplane.  He was dubbed the Henry Ford of aviation.

Piper believed that a simple, low-cost airplane would sell, even in the Depression. He hired a talented designer, and produced several models used for agricultural, recreational, and commercial purposes.  World War II saw the production of a military version, the L-4 Grasshopper.  Production went up and down as private aviation grew and declined in popularity.  When you visit this little museum, you can see a film covering the history, as well as dozens of timelines and much memorabilia.  Stars of the show, of course, are the planes themselves, which include all the early models, as well as several period vehicles.

One of our favorite displays was a plane named the City of Angels, a Piper SuperCruiser that flew around the world in 1947.  The plane and its sister, The City of Washington, both accomplished that feat with nothing more serious than a cracked tail wheel between the two of them.  The fuselage is decorated on one side with the names of all the cities in which the plane landed, and on the other side with the flags of all the countries it visited.  Know any RVs that look like that?

The other exhibit that piqued our interest was about the WASPs—the Women Airforce Service Pilots who delivered airplanes during World War II and eventually even flew in combat.

So back to Piper Cubs and RUVs. Pipers could be fitted with pontoons to land on water, skis to land on snow, balloon tires to land on soft sand. With seats removed they were airborne pickup trucks. With jump seats they could haul the family. They sprayed crops, dropped mail, flew in airshows, delivered emergency medical supplies, and helped explore remote areas of the globe.  Our Roadtrek may not do all those things, but it does do a lot more than take us on vacations.