Educating one’s self can be a lot fun. Just ask 12-year-old Isaiah Gershon, a volunteer guide at the Empire State Aerosciences Museum on Route 50 in Glenville.
“I’ve probably watched ‘Top Gun’ 30 to 40 times, and it’s a great movie,” said Gershon, a Rotterdam resident and sixth-grader at Draper Middle School. “We have the Mig 28 here that was actually used in the movie, so I’m always looking for that plane when I watch the movie.”
Gershon can tell you just about everything you might want to know about the 1986 blockbuster film, but his knowledge of airplanes and aviation of all types goes well beyond Tom Cruise movies. He first showed up at the museum with his grandfather when he was 3, and for more than two years now he’s been volunteering his time there as a guide, helping visitors better appreciate what a fascinating and educational experience the place offers.
“We’re fortunate to have Isaiah,” said Jim Liguori of Burnt Hills, president of the museum for the past year and a half. “He has a lot of energy and excitement about aviation and the museum, and he likes to share that with our visitors. I have a lot of faith in him. I’ve watched him do tours. He does a great job.”
Gershon can go on and on about C-130s, Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolts and Grumman F-14 Tomcats to name just a few of his favorite planes. While the C-130 cargo planes are still very much a part of the Stratton Air Force Base at the Schenectady County Airport, the Thunderbolts and Tomcats are kept at the museum’s Air Park adjacent to the airport. Before visitors can see the airplanes up close, they head to the museum and check out a number of educational exhibits in a large hangar that used to be General Electric’s Flight Test Facility.
There, Gershon will talk about individuals such as the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, as well as discuss the finer points of flying during World War I and World War II. Also included in the exhibit space is a large model of the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi, used during the filming of “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” a 1970 Hollywood depiction of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“There’s a rumor that when we first got this thing we were using it up in Lake George for fun,” said Gershon. “I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a really neat model. They used it during the filming of ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ and when you see it in the movie it looks very realistic. I did some research and found out they put the tower on the wrong side, but other than that they did a great job.”
While Gershon remembers visiting the museum as a very young child, he wasn’t particularly interested in airplanes or aviation until just a few years ago.
“He was bored one day so I suggested we go out to the museum and he got interested,” said Gary Gershon, Isaiah’s grandfather. “He kept on coming out and one day some folks asked him to show them around and he did a great job. I remember the day he got a $20 tip and he said, ‘Look Grampa, what am I going to do with this.?’ I told him about the donation box in the gift shop. He’s put about $50 in this donation box since he started doing this. He’s an exceptional kid.”
Gershon isn’t the only volunteer at the Empire State Aerosciences Museum. There are a solid group of 40 to 50 enthusiastic volunteers who give their time and energy to this nonprofit corporation, which consists of nine buildings on 27 acres of land on the western perimeter of the airport. The museum, established in 1984, should have a very busy 2016 season according to Liguori.
“This summer, we’re celebrating the hangar that was built 70 years ago,” said Liguori. “This place is really a landmark, because right after World War II the country needed jet planes, and the GE Research Flight Test Center is where we developed jet engines. We’re trying to draw attention to that and get out the word. We’re developing one-of-a-kind exhibits that you’re not going to see anyplace else in the world. The birth of the Space Age was right here. That’s the story we’re telling.”
The 20 or so planes that make up the Air Park at the museum are still owned by the U.S. Navy and Air Force.
“We have them on loan from the Navy and the Air Force, and as a museum we take care of them for display purposes so the public can see them,” said Liguori. “They’re not using them. So our part of the bargain is to maintain them, tell their story, and let the public enjoy them. “
Along with the Air Park and the exhibit galleries, the museum also has the Jansz Vander Veer Research Center/Library, where over 8,000 books and other printed items can be perused by the public. The museum will also be offering a summer camp, “Becoming Aviators,” for area youths Aug. 22-26.
“We’re going to do two programs this year,” explained Liguori. “They’ll be a younger group, under 12, and then a separate camp for older kids, boys and girls. We have teachers and instructors telling the children how planes fly, the physics behind it, and the camp culminates in an airplane ride. It’s a very unique program and a great experience for the kids.”
Those kids, however, won’t be going up in the Warthog or A-10 Thunderbolt, or anything else they might see in the Air Park.
“These plans no longer fly,” said Gershon, “but people love to come and look at them. They like the museum, but what the kids really want to do is to come out here and see the planes. When they get inside something like the Northrop F-5E Tiger they want to know, ‘How does this thing fly?’ It really is amazing.”