Historical Aviation Beam Found in Columbia

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COLUMBIA - A piece of Columbia aviation history was uncovered after workers were instructed to demolish an old public works building.

A more than 43 foot long beam that reads "Stephens College Aviation Department" was found after a brick façade fell from what used to be the face of a Parks Management Center building.

"When I was pulling the brick off the face of the building, it seemed that it said something behind it and I continued pulling it down and it was rather interesting," said Jeremy Sapp, the worker who originally found the beam.

Sapp had to figure out what to do next.

"He stopped and made a couple of phone calls to our (Columbia Public Works) project managers and wanted to know what to do at this point because he recognized that maybe there was some historical significance," said Steven Sapp, Public Information Specialist for Columbia Public Works.

Public Works stopped demolition immediately and contacted Stephens College.

"We're very excited that the city found this beam and that they are working with us and helping us figure out the best way to preserve it," said Rebecca Kline, Director of Marketing and Communications at Stephens College.

Since the discovery of the beam, a lot of history has been dug up. The Parks Management Center was once home to the Columbia Municipal Airport. In the 1940s, the airport teamed up with Stephens College.

"The Stephens College Aviation program began in 1941 as a response to student interest and by 1944 it was a full fledge program and many women went through the program for the next 20 years," Kline said. 

Columbia Municipal Airport was used for both ground and aeronautical training for the Stephens College Aviation Department until the department ended in 1960.

Some of the women who went through the program went on to do big things and have greatly impacted the world with their education in aeronautics. This includes Francis Jenkins Holter from the class of 1944 who was the project engineer for the Apollo lunar rover and a principal engineer on the Apollo lunar module used in the moon landing program. Another alumna, Wally Funk from the class of 1958, became one of the Mercury 13.

Because of the rich history of the Stephens College Aviation Department and the relationship with Columbia Municipal Airport and the City of Columbia, engineers were instructed to safely remove the beam so it could be preserved.

"It was rather time consuming to take it down without scratching it. To not damage any of the paint on it made it time consuming. It wasn't hard, it just took a little while and a little thought behind it," Jeremy Sapp said. 

The beam is currently wrapped in a weather-proof tarp and being held at the Columbia Regional Airport. It will soon be housed in a hanger at the airport until a use is determined. 

"We are working with our own facilities team to figure out the best place for it here. We want to make sure that it is something people can see because it's an exciting and well-known part of our past for our alumna but we haven't figured it out exactly where because to my understanding, it's a very large beam," Kline said. 

Representatives from both Stephens College and Columbia Public Works will continue to meet to decide the future of the beam.