New England Air Museum’s executive director retiring after 29 years

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By Madeleine Moreau
For The Airport News

Ask Michael P. Speciale what the worst day was in his 29 years at the New England Air Museum and he pauses just a moment.
There really wasn’t one, he says.
“I love coming to work every day. That’s why I stayed that long.”
After 29½ years, Speciale, 68, will retire Dec. 1 as executive director of the largest aviation museum in the Northeast. An executive committee is searching for his replacement.
The museum was in tough shape when the Middletown native started working here in 1985. The 1979 tornado had destroyed 20 of its vintage aircraft, with many more damaged.
When Speciale arrived, there was just one hangar and it was 100 percent mortgaged.
“I thought I would only be here for a couple of years — just to get things stabilized,” he says.
That one building has grown to seven buildings. And, unusual for any nonprofit nowadays, the museum today has a healthy budget with substantial cash reserves.
That’s a matter of pride to Speciale.
“All this took a long time to do, of course. We’ve been growing nonstop. … And we’re still growing,” he says.
Sure, those open cockpit days are still popular, attracting thousands every year. Visitors of all ages eagerly climb into the cockpits of vintage aircraft, such as a World War II Republic P-47D Thunderbolt or a Lockheed F-104C Starfighter.
“It’s a lot of fun — people love it,” he says. “But we’ve added a tremendous variety of other special events,” he says.
He points to two.
There’s the museum’s annual Space Expo in March, which this year attracted more than 15 exhibitors from across New England.
This year’s event also included a visit from NASA astronaut and Connecticut native Capt. Daniel Burbank. He shared his experiences on two Space Shuttle missions.
Then there’s the popular Women Take Flight Day, held in the fall. The day features a star-studded cast of women in aviation and aerospace engineering.
“It’s very inspirational to young women,” he says.
The museum, he says, plays two key roles. First, of course, its mission is to preserve history.
“What we do here — the tangible results you can see and touch and feel. We have a lot of historical aircraft restorations … rare or unique.”
And the second role: to excite and interest children to pursue careers in aviation.
The days are long gone when the New England Air Museum was a place for “males to come and look at a bunch of hardware.”
Most people who visit today are young people who visit with their families, he says.
Does he see challenges ahead for his successor?
Fundraising, he says.
“So many organizations are chasing the same amount of money. It’s positioning yourself so you can spark the interest of industry and corporate donors. It gets harder and harder.”
As for retirement, Speciale says he’s keeping his options open. Maybe volunteer work or teaching.
“The door’s open; I am just not sure,” he says.
He is confident, though, that the museum will continue to thrive.
“We have a great board of directors, great staff — we’re in really great shape.”
His colleagues at the museum will miss him.
Scott Ashton, president of the New England Air Museum, said. “Mike has been an enthusiastic and dedicated leader of the museum for nearly 30 years. We are very grateful for Mike’s leadership and dedication to the mission of the New England Air Museum.”
Speciale “led the museum’s transformation from a small one-hangar museum recovering from the effects of a tornado in 1969, to a major cultural, educational, and historical institution serving a world-wide audience,” Ashton said.

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