Darryl Coit (right) displays a model to explain how the refurbished T-33 will be displayed at the south entrance to Joplin Regional Airport. Also representing the Freedom of Flight Museum are Sam Gaskill (left) and Ernie Trumbly.

Freedom of Flight Museum plans to restore its 'T-Bird' as a veterans memorial and to draw attention to the museum itself

Jana Mackin

Organizational meeting of volunteers will be held Saturday afternoon

When a dedicated group of flyboys, plane spotters and aerophiles begin restoration later this month of an old war bird at Joplin’s Regional Airport, an old hangar will be ground zero for a volunteer project to build a T-33 gate guard and veterans memorial pavilion to honor the area’s rich aviation and aerospace contributions.

The project marks a new chapter for the Freedom of Flight Museum as it embarks on a year-long project to restore a donated T-33 Shooting Star that’s presently dismantled in the hangar. Museum officials are welcoming skilled and unskilled volunteers willing to donate time, money and materials in what promises to be a breathtaking centerpiece at the old airport entrance along Highway 171.

When complete, the mounted war bird will soar above the entrance, inviting all to visit what is a tucked-away, world-class air museum housed at the airport’s old terminal and control tower.

“Everybody going up and down the road will see it,” said Ernie Trumbly, museum curator. “The T-33 aircraft is an advertisement for the museum and the airport.”

“The aircraft will be recognizable in all directions,” said Trumbly, a U.S. Air Force veteran. “It symbolizes the service of all the veterans in the area.”

“It’s a labor of love,” Trumbly said.

“We’ve got exhibits that no one else has,” says Ernie Trumbly. “The Smithsonian has nothing on us.”

Darryl Coit highlights astronaut Janet Kavandi, from Carthage, to encourage students to set their sights high. 

A section of the museum honors the service of former fighter pilot Sam Gaskill.

Writer Jana Mackin sits in a pilot’s ejection seat that’s on display in the museum.

For about a decade, the Freedom of Flight Museum has graced the old terminal building and control tower with a repository of priceless aviation and aerospace artifacts and displays. Darryl Coit, museum president, and Trumbly started the museum to promote the history of aviation and aerospace in the four-state region.

Although on a “shoestring budget,” the museum boasts extensive aviation and aerospace collections that chronicle flight from the Wright brothers to modern day. There are thousands of exhibits, artifacts, photographs, objects, interactive exhibits and simulators.

Nearly 9,000 students have been guided through the museum on educational tours.

The museum also houses the Air and Space Technology Center, which displays Trumbly’s personal collections of rare instruments controls, avionics, spy and guidance systems, missiles, bombs and other various objects.

Whether it’s pilots playing in a B-52 cockpit, kids watching touch and go’s from the old tower, a photo display of a Rocketdyne F-1 Apollo engine or Wernher von Braun, a collection of black boxes and gravity suits, or an ejection seat of a F-4 Phantom, it is a world-class candy store of all things that fly.

“Everyone loves all things aviation. We’ve got exhibits that no one else has,” Trumbly said. “We’ve got super rare stuff – Stuff you don’t see anywhere else in the country. The Smithsonian has nothing on us.”

You may recognize the T-33 Shooting Star from the years it was pointed at the airport from Planeview Auto Sales along Highway 171. It has been in stored in a hangar (with its tail section removed so it would fit) since 2021.

The museum’s rare 1952 Lockheed T-33 was an area landmark for years as it overlooked the Joplin airport from its location at Planeview Auto Sales. It was donated by business owner, Jason Gaskill, to honor family service members including his fighter-pilot uncle, Sam Gaskill, a local legend who has his own museum exhibit. The plane was moved to the airport in 2021, where it has set in pieces, awaiting restoration as the airport gate guard and center piece for a veterans memorial.

“I trained in the T-33 – the T-bird. They were called ‘Shooting Stars,’” Gaskill said. He flew 232 missions during his tenure as a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, comptroller and intelligence officer from 1954 to 1976.

“It was a pretty plane – so easy to handle and very forgiving,” Gaskill said.

As the museum continues to grow and expand, volunteers are welcome to contribute, whether working on the restoration project or other venues. For it is volunteers’ contributions which will continue to realize the museum’s development and impact as symbolized through the restoration of the rare Lockheed T-33.

“We have an area that is really rich in aviation and aerospace,” Coit said.

“The T-33 is a symbol of the bravery and the sacrifice our veterans made. It is our thank you to them by putting it up.”

“We have a lot of opportunities – a lot of activities for people to do things.”

“We just need more people.”

He invites all who are interested to attend the organizational meeting of the T-33 volunteers, which will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 23, at the museum.

The Freedom of Flight Museum, located in the Joplin Regional Airport’s General Aviation Terminal, 5501 Dennis Weaver Drive, is open to the public from 2 to 5 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For the latest updates, visit their Facebook page.

Ernie Trumbly and Sam Gaskill discuss steps needed to make the T-33 not flyable but presentable.