As a kid, Michael W. Hankins ('07, '13 M.S.) spent hours building model airplanes and watching Star Trek.
Now as an adult, he is surrounded by historic airplanes, such as the SR-71A Blackbird, which holds the record for fastest piloted jet airplane ever made, and the model of the Starship Enterprise that was used to film the TV series.
Hankins is the curator for U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps post-World War II Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He also is the author of Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponization of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia, which traces how pilots influenced the design of certain aircraft.
Hankins says aircraft and aviation played an important role in history by providing technology advances that allowed the U.S. to gain its role as a global leader. And studying the history of aircraft helps put visitors into the shoes of those who broke barriers.
"Thinking about history helps us understand each other better, understand our world better and make the world better as we move forward," he says. "Aviation stories show us all of that, as humans learned to literally lift themselves up into the skies."
Hankins calls himself a nerd for airplanes and history, but he came to UNT for the jazz program.
A bass player, he performed in the Six O'Clock Lab Band and played in several ensembles. After earning his degree in applied arts and sciences, he played gigs as a musician while working as a web content editor in the corporate world. But that job left him unfulfilled.
He wanted to be an educator -- and UNT offered a highly acclaimed military history program.
The faculty in the master's program proved to be great guides for Hankins. History professor Rob Citino, now at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, taught him to be an effective teacher, researcher and author. Christopher Fuhrmann, associate professor of history, advised him how to submit articles and what conferences to attend.
Hankins had considered ancient history his specialty, but he says, "I think I was secretly hoping I could study airplanes. Can I really do this? Is this really an academic thing?"
In fact, he could. After UNT, he earned his doctorate from Kansas State University in 2018, and saw an opening at the Smithsonian, but he didn't think he was qualified for the position. At a conference, another curator told him, "Go upstairs right now and fill out your application."
He applied for the job that night. And the rest is history.
As curator, Hankins serves as caretaker for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps post-WWII fixed wing aircraft -- making sure they are taken care of properly, answering questions from the public and giving tours.
"I love standing in the floor of the museum and watching other people interacting with our artifacts," he says. "You see their face change and become very excited."
The Smithsonian is undergoing extensive renovations, and he is helping to design the new galleries and determining which airplanes will be featured. The work can be intense, with a constant stream of requests that require research -- as well as balancing different viewpoints.
"That can be a challenge, but it's cool when it comes together," he says.
He continues to conduct research. In his book Flying Camelot, he explores the culture behind fighter pilots from the 1970s and 1980s and how they inspired the design of the F-15 and F-16 airplanes.
"It's almost a biography of an idea," Hankins says. "It's how the cultural mindset of that time influenced the airplane technology."
That type of community is essential in the history of aviation and the world.
"Whether it's Jackie Cochran becoming the first woman to break the sound barrier, Neil Armstrong landing on the moon or the Tuskegee Airmen African American fighter pilots of World War II, these stories show us what humanity is capable of achieving if we dedicate ourselves and work together," he says. "And the more we explore that history, the more we see that our history isn't usually about individuals -- it's about communities supporting each other, collaborating, compromising and achieving something amazing together. History is important because it shows us the range of possibilities of human existence."
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