With Don Larson and Ryan Thayer
It is no secret that North Dakotans are proud of their rich history and legacy, boasting many museums across the state. While you may be familiar with the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, the National Buffalo Museum, or the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, how much do you know about your local aviation museum?
In Minot, ND, you can find the Dakota Territory Air Museum, and a few hundred miles southeast is the Fargo Air Museum. They are a part of the North Dakota Association of Aviation Museums, a branch of the North Dakota Aviation Association. Don Larson is a Founder and the President of the Dakota Territory Air Museum, and Ryan Thayer is the Executive Director of the Fargo Air Museum. Both Don and Ryan have a deep passion and appreciation for all things aviation; they work hard to connect the local community to the past and present of North Dakota’s aviation industry through preservation, restoration, and education.
Q.How did you get started in aviation and where has it led you?
Don: My introduction to aviation began 60 years ago, when I started taking flying lessons. I worked up to my commercial license with an instrument rating. For several years, I worked as a charter pilot on a part-time basis with Pietsch Flying Service in Minot, ND. In 1986, I, along with Warren Pietsch and the late Alfred Pietsch, organized the Dakota Territory Air Museum. I have been on the Board of Directors ever since.
Ryan: I was born and raised into an aviation family, as my father was a pilot and aircraft controller in the Aberdeen, SD, and Fargo, ND, areas. I received my solo pilot’s license at 16 years old and earned my private pilot’s license at 19 years old from University of North Dakota (UND) Aerospace. From a young age, I began dreaming of an aviation career and attended UND for an Airline Transport degree. After receiving my pilot’s license, the industry was struggling due to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I chose to take a detour and instead received a business degree from UND. Since then, I started and ran over seven companies, from finance and insurance to real estate and construction. I recently moved back to the Fargo area with the hopes of getting back into aviation and I was hired to run the Fargo Air Museum.
Q. That is the mission of your museum?
Don: The mission of the Dakota Territory Air Museum is: “To be a vital historical aviation resource honoring the men, women, and machines that have impacted the rich history of aviation through displays and events that educate, inspire, and entertain people of all ages.” Over the years, we have collected thousands of artifacts, books, pictures, and newspaper articles, along with over 50 aircraft that have been donated or loaned for display. We have over 55,000 square feet of indoor display area on our 17-acre campus, which also includes numerous outdoor displays.
Ryan: “The Fargo Air Museum is a nonprofit organization that serves to promote interest in aviation through education, preservation and restoration.” We are very passionate about our mission and we work hard each and every day to accomplish it. We recently expanded our Youth Camps with STEAM/STEM and flight curriculum, are undergoing restorations like our BT-13 and Stinson Reliant projects, and preserve history in the area with our veterans and exhibits.
Q.What role does the local aviation community play for your museum?
Don: Over the years, our local aviation community has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial help. In addition, we have received thousands of hours of volunteer help from our local community, including Minot Air Force Base.
Ryan: The local aviation community is very, very important to us. We have a great partnership with our local community where we help support each other, whether it be for aircraft to display at the museum or helping us with youth education and veterans events. We are all pursuing similar missions, enjoying aviation, and helping to spur the passion for aviation in our youth!
Q.What resources do you provide to your local aviation community?
Don: For our local community, we provide a place where families can preserve and display artifacts that have been in their families for many years. We, as a nonprofit 501c3 organization, serve as a facility where folks can donate aircraft and other items and use the donation as a tax benefit to them. We also have an education outreach program, which provides aviation camps to local youth. Additionally, we administer a scholarship program with the funds provided by the Farstad Foundation. From those funds, we provide eight $2,500 scholarships annually for aviation-related careers. The Farstad Foundation also provides $5,000 annually for our general education outreach program.
Ryan: We provide many resources to our local aviation community with preservation, restoration, and education. We provide advanced educational programs for our youth, preservation of history in our community, and restoration of historic aircraft. This offers opportunities to help out our community in the areas our volunteers are most passionate about. We are also working on offering scholarships for flight training, as well as other exciting new programs.
Q. How have you built relationships with the local community?
Don: Our museum is open to the public from mid-May until mid-October. Up until this past summer, we had scheduled monthly events in an effort to encourage the community to visit the museum. Many of our events are done around historic dates, such as Victory in Europe Day, Victory over Japan Day, and Pearl Harbor. We provide space for some smaller community events, like the Chamber of Commerce meetings, occasional service club meetings, United States Air Force groups, and promotion receptions.
Ryan: We are continually building new relationships, as well as fostering current relationships, in our community. We have very strong relationships with local schools, the North Dakota Air National Guard, and local businesses with partnerships and sponsorships. We offer a ton of benefits to our community, which helps naturally draw people in. We also have a great team of staff to help with outreach in setting up partnerships and relationships, as we work through opportunities and challenges. Our community works better together!
Q.What is your favorite exhibit/attraction in your museum?
Don: My favorite exhibit is the full-scale 1903 Wright Flyer. I find it very interesting, because that is where it all started 117 years ago.
Ryan: That is a tough one. I would have to say my current favorite is the Happy Hooligans F-16 that we have on temporary loan from the North Dakota Air National Guard. I grew up just north of Fargo, and I can remember playing in the backyard as a kid and hearing and watching them do touch and gos and practice maneuvers. It is an amazing aircraft, coupled with childhood memories and the strong tie to the Fargo Area, that makes it very special to me.
Dakota Territory Air Museum president, Don Larson
Q.As a branch of the North Dakota Aviation Association (NDAA), in what ways is your museum involved in the Association?
Don: As a member of the NDAA, I am currently serving on its Board of Directors. I also served for a number of years as Director of the former North Dakota Aviation Council. Both of our museums have been very proactive in the NDAA. Each year that the annual North Dakota aviation conference is held in our cities, the museums have offered our facilities for the opening night social. It is a very appropriate setting for the event, at which we also have an exhibitor’s booth.
Ryan: We do our best to be a resource for NDAA members with our event venue services, youth camp programs, veterans events, in-house special events, and to help bring new content to the association through our articles. We are also discussing a NDAA member discount to the Fargo Air Museum. The NDAA has been very supportive of us and we would like to return the favor with a potential discount.
Q. What volunteer options do you have?
Don: We are usually looking for volunteers most anytime at our museum. Even during the off-season, from mid-October to mid-May, we are putting together new exhibits or re-doing existing exhibits. If you’re interested in volunteering, call the museum or visit our website.
Ryan: Currently, we are looking for volunteers to help with our restoration department. We have a BT-13 we are working on and are over halfway complete, as well as our Stinson Reliant project. We would love to speak to former and current Airframe and Powerplant Mechanics to restore these two aircraft, as well as pursuing additional aircraft for future restorations. We are also looking for volunteers for other things, like landscaping, youth camp help, and drywalling and maintenance. There is always something that we can use help with at our facility. We also host special events and always need volunteers to help with security, parking, and ticketing.
Ryan Thayer is the executive director of the Fargo Air Museum
Stop in at your nearest North Dakota aviation museum, where you can explore the exhibits and aircraft. You are sure to discover something you love! You will find visitors and volunteers from high school students all the way into retirement years, from veterans to former youth camp kids, and everyone in between. Learn more about visiting, volunteering, and events here:
Fargo Air Museum
1609 19th Ave N, Fargo, ND 58102
Dakota Territory Air Museum
100 34th Ave NE, Minot, ND 58703
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