Naval Air Museum recovers from COVID

An interactive exhibit is reopening at the Pacific Northwest Naval Air Museum in Oak Harbor.

An exciting interactive exhibit is reopening at the Pacific Northwest Naval Air Museum in Oak Harbor.

The return of the night vision goggle room is just one of several milestones the museum has achieved — or hopes to reach in the near future — as it bounces back from a tough pandemic season.

The room contains a topographical display, lit in a way that simulates moonlight. Through the highly sensitive vintage night vision goggles, museum visitors can see the miniature landscape as if they were pilots flying over it in the darkness.

The room will be open on Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m.

Sonny Starks, media arts manager for the museum, said museum officials have tried to reopen the exhibit several other times during the pandemic but couldn’t maintain the volunteers necessary to operate it after the long COVID-19 closure.

“Volunteers find better things to do. Volunteers get deployed. Volunteers move away,” he said. “We lost a lot of volunteers during the COVID shutdown. So now we’re trying to rebuild.”

Museum President Wil Shellenberger said the museum was closed for more than five months when the pandemic began. Upon reopening, many of the older volunteers who were more susceptible to the effects of COVID did not return. The museum is now in the midst of a campaign to recruit new volunteers for a variety of museum activities.

Like many organizations, the museum also lost a lot of operating revenue, Shellenberger said, but community donations kept it afloat during a time when many small museums across the country were forced to close permanently.

“It was a struggle, but our biggest success was that our supporters really stepped up and donated funds,” he said. “I can’t say enough about the people who’ve stepped up and made donations that really helped us stay in very good financial shape.”

As the museum makes its comeback from its initial pandemic closure, reopening the night vision goggle exhibit isn’t the only promising sign. The year 2021 saw almost as many visitors as 2019. The museum recently hired its first employee, an operations manager to oversee interns and volunteers. Museum officials are seeking a new location to build a larger facility.

Looking forward, Shellenberger hopes to soon have enough volunteers to reopen another interactive exhibit — the museum’s flight simulators. The simulators allow visitors to use cockpit style controllers and a computer to experience taking off, flying and landing a plane. Shellenberger said he hopes to reopen the simulators sometime this spring.

The Pacific Northwest Naval Air Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. on Sundays. The price of admission is currently $5, reduced from the usual $7 because some attractions haven’t reopened yet.

All visitors are required to wear a mask at all times regardless of vaccination status.