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John Travolta helped Kansas City's Airline History Museum take off – but a con man almost took it down



Paul Sloan sits on a courtroom bench on a November morning, waiting for a clerk to call his name. The 63-year-old's considerable girth stretches the fabric of an olive-green sweater.

Sloan is here, at the Cass County Justice Center, on charges that he stole $51,000 from the Airline History Museum, an homage to flight that occupies a hangar at Kansas City's downtown airport. The museum arose out of an effort to restore a Constellation, a piston-driven plane that recalls a more glamorous age of passenger aviation. Over several years, Sloan wormed his way into positions of authority, his hands greedy for what little cash the museum had. He collected a lavish salary as the museum's director, and what he didn't take home in salary he stole, embezzling from an event headlined by John Travolta. His handprints can also be found on a clumsy attempt to cash in on the museum's insurance policy.

His 9 a.m. court appearance plays to a nearly full house. He crossed a lot people during his time at the museum, and most of them are retired. Their mornings free, they fill two benches in the courtroom. One of them pushes a walker down the aisle to get there.

Sloan approaches the judge to enter his plea: guilty. He agrees to a sentence of five years of probation and $10,000 in restitution. When it's over, the museum's supporters file out. Some head for their cars, but others wait in the hall.

"Bye, Paul," a man says, like a sports fan taunting a vanquished opponent.

"Bye, Paul," a woman says.

"Bye, Paul," says another man.

Sloan doesn't respond to the sarcastic farewells. Instead, he turns toward the county clerk's office, where he'll arrange to pay his restitution in $200 monthly installments.

As con men do, Sloan used people as his instruments, and his power to persuade was aided by an ability to remain calm, to be the voice of reason. He had an answer for everything and never hesitated in delivering it.

"He talks a really good game," says one woman who dealt with him. "You find yourself getting sucked in."

Though his punishment is light, Sloan's attempts to loot the Airline History Museum — which is subsidized by the city with free rent and occasional grants — went on for years. He lasted that long by creating divisions and exploiting rivalries. He was always meeting with someone in a corner, says one former board member.

Sloan's was the only name in the indictment. But if bad judgment were a crime, the judge would have been in for a long morning. Sloan's enablers at the Airline History Museum included an ex-cop with ties to a trigger-happy law firm and a city councilman with a soft spot for airplanes. And while Sloan was forced to resign, the ex-cop and the councilman remain in charge at the struggling museum.

She was lying in the desert when they found her.

It was the summer of 1985. At Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base in south Kansas City, Larry Brown, a corporate pilot, and Dick McMahon, retired Air Force, got to talking about planes. Brown reached for a picture of a military version of a Constellation. Admiring its triple-tail design, the two men wondered if they could find one, fix it up and fly it around to air shows.

The Constellation was developed by Lockheed at the suggestion of Howard Hughes, who acquired a controlling interest in TWA in 1944. Hughes wanted a plane that made passenger air travel seem safe and sophisticated. With a sexy design and the ability to fly above the clouds, the Constellation delivered both.

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