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DRACUT — When Deborah Scheetz earned her private pilot’s license, her friends gave her toy airplanes as a gag to make up for the real plane they couldn’t buy her.
It’s taken nearly two decades, but her collection has grown a bit since then. She and fellow Dracut resident Rosalie Dunbar are now the volunteer curators of the Top Fun Aviation Toy Museum, in Fitchburg, which boasts more than 3,000 aviation toys, from SpongeBob SquarePants planes to a radio-controlled flying model with a 10-foot wingspan.
It was a fascination with flight — its dramatic history and seemingly boundless possibilities — rather than a particular interest in the toys themselves that prompted the two friends to open the museum.
“We learned as we got more into (aviation) that there were a lot of kids who didn’t know about the possibilities of flight,” said Dunbar. “We thought if kids could get into aviation and see these job opportunities, it might change their lives.”
Scheetz and Dunbar first opened the nonprofit museum in Winchendon in 2000, before moving to their current space on Prichard Street in Fitchburg six years later.
Their displays range from the downright fun — a cardboard spaceship where children meet and fly to imaginary planets together — to the educational. In addition to airplanes the friends wanted to make sure that visitors were exposed to the spectrum of functions flight serves in our society. They have displays about firefighting planes and medical helicopters and in the past they’ve brought in an ocean rescue pilot for a talk to compliment their panorama on the subject.
One of the highlights of their year is the annual paper airplane contest, held on the third Sunday in September. They used to schedule it as close to the anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight, but mid December tends to produce less-than-ideal paper airplane conditions in Massachusetts.
“We separated the kids from the adults because we thought the adults would scoop all the prizes if they were in it together, but we were wrong,” Scheetz said. “The kids scoop all the prizes. It’s really exciting to have a little 3-year-old kid, or an adult who’s never thrown a paper airplane, which is sad, win that prize.”
Scheetz and Dunbar love teaching people about aviation. Anecdotes about Orivlle and Wilbur Wright are their particular favorites, and they try to impart lessons about the brothers’ persistence in the face of adversity to museum visitors.
With its toys and brightly painted murals, the museum is an obvious attraction for children. But Scheetz and Dunbar said they’ve been surprised with the way it also seems to open up adults.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, people came to the museum looking for comfort and answers.
“Because we’re a toy museum, people feel more comfortable asking their quote-unquote dumb questions about aviation,” Scheetz said.
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