By Monica Surfaro Spigelman
The sky’s the limit when it comes to what Count Ferdinand von Galen will do for Pima Air & Space Museum, the Titan Missile Museum and, ultimately, Pima County.
Count von Galen joined the board of trustees of the Arizona Aerospace Foundation in 1997 and passionately led the transformation of the museums it operates.
The count has a storied heritage – including two ancestors beatified by the Roman Catholic Church and the 12th century heraldic coat of arms symbolic of a northern Germany noble family. He could easily have been anything he wanted. Yet aviation became the core of his zeal.
As a child he was spellbound by the bombers flying across the sky in World War II. That enduring fascination led him to become an international banker, aviation adviser, avid collector of aircraft and now the champion of Arizona’s air museums.
The count may not be a pilot, but his soul soars as he strides around the 80-acre air museum – which he helped make the third largest of its kind in the world, and one of a select few that operates in the black.
“I have a lot of curiosity about history and the world around me,” Count von Galen said. “What we’re about at the museum is instilling that curiosity – as well as dreams of innovation and technology.”
Inspiring future pilots, engaging supporters and educating the community – that’s the everyday commitment of Count von Galen. He’s a hands-on, engaged leader.
He is legendary for his graceful ability to move from old-fashioned carousing with the veteran stick-and-rudder guys who are museum volunteers to negotiating the acquisition of rare aircraft from four-star generals or an Imperial War Museum. His efforts are increasing visitorship and that’s impacting the region’s tourism industry.
“What we have is diversification – from rare war planes to unique commercial aircraft,” Count von Galen said.
When he joined the foundation’s Board of Trustees in 1997, both the Pima Air & Space Museum and the Titan Missile Museum were floundering. The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, which has a say in where important aircraft are placed, had doubts about what Pima Air & Space could handle.
The count’s first task was to tackle the Titan visitors’ center at the site housing the nation’s last remaining Titan intercontinental ballistic missile. Eighteen months into his leadership, he had pulled together resources and collaborators, and cut the ribbon for the new complex, putting the landmark into its rightful historic and futuristic Space Age context.
Then, the count ignited the interest of global collectors and philanthropists, wooing them with humor and conviction, gaining large monetary gifts and priceless acquisitions for Pima Air & Space and Tucson. Under his watch, 78 rare aircraft were added to the collection. More than $12 million in funding was brought in by the count, with 60 percent coming from outside Arizona.
At his side is his wife of 48 years, the Countess Anita von Galen. An elegant and talented businesswoman, she enhances the collaborative enterprise that benefits the aviation museums. When the Arizona Aerospace Foundation’s board of trustees voted unanimously to name Hangar 1 in the count’s honor, the countess hosted a memorable surprise party for the unveiling. Museum, government and business leaders attended the glamorous fête held in the museum’s Spirit of Freedom Hangar, emceed in part by their son, Ferdinand Otto von Galen.
Like a country doctor making his rounds, the count strides around the caliche of the 80-acre museum at least twice a week – exclaiming over aircraft exhibits, laughing with volunteers. A mild commotion occurs in the hangars as he briskly passes through. It’s clear that this impeccable gentleman in crisp sports jacket and pocket handkerchief is a hands-on leader, always engaging others in conversations laced with specifics about pilot names and aircraft designations.
Passing through the Spirit of Freedom hangar – built via a large gift from benefactor John Mars – the count draws visitors to the sleek needle-like wonder of the futuristic Lockheed 71-A Blackbird, the world’s fastest aircraft.
His enthusiastic storytelling continues as he nears a Learjet Model 23 built in the mid 1960s. The count knew the pilot, Louise Timken, a famous civil air patrol pilot and huntress. He points out the animal-skin seat covers. When Timken was 80 she donated her aircraft to the museum. This jet will be a centerpiece in a new Women in Aviation exhibit scheduled to open in 2014.
Near the restoration hangar, newly complete with a wash pad and water treatment system, the count recalls the story about the Mil Mi-24D Hind-D Soviet helicopter acquisition. After meeting the director of the Imperial War Museum during one of his many travels on behalf of the museum, the two traded stories about military equipment. By the end of the visit the director and the count were connecting their museum curators to explore the transfer of the Hind to Tucson. “This is how it works,” he said.
“There’s a secret to persuading great people to contribute to your ideas,” the count said about his ongoing philanthropy in Pima County. “Having a museum with distinguishing characteristics is key.”
After studies in England earned him a degree in classical languages, the count was hired by a bank in Germany. Mergers with a series of family companies followed. When his German banking business teetered in the early 1980s, he had already laid the foundation to rebuild by looking west to North America.
“I was early in creating an American network to build our German-based international investment business in the beginning of the 1960s. For some months, I departed Thursday afternoons from Frankfurt, flying to New York City, working nonstop. However I was back in Frankfurt on Monday morning.”
Count von Galen discovered the Southwest when he visited a business associate’s ranch house in Nogales. By 1973, he had set down roots in Patagonia, purchasing the historic Rail X Ranch, a working ranch for Red Angus Brahman cattle, with a 1930s colonial Santa Fe residence that ultimately was restored by the countess. The count’s First Patagonia Capital Company, a private investment company, now is managed out of the ranch.
Planning for Expansion
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry recognizes the Pima Air & Space Museum as one of the region’s unique attractions. Pima County had included an air museum project in the now-postponed bond election. The project would include a 120,000-square-foot Cold War Hangar, envisioned to house some of the museum’s most rare aircraft, as well as a theater showcasing the University of Arizona space and technical programs.
“We are on county land and our responsibility is to grow the county’s investment,” the count said. “There’s a double bottom line here – operating in the black – as well as building tourism and presenting a world-class aviation museum. We hope the county says ‘you’re managing our investment well, go ahead.’ ”
Engaging youth in science and engineering is a key priority. Already opening its doors to 29,378 children, the museum is introducing the Great Paper Airplane Project. The 2014 fly-off on Feb. 8 is sponsored by Mars, Incorporated. “The new generation – they do not know the magic of all this and where it can lead to in the future,” the count said.
In the end, it’s all about stimulating the mind and exciting the eye – while satisfying the bottom line.
“It’s a tight ship with great love of what we do visible everywhere. It’s what I expect of myself and of everyone who works here.”