The Story of the Yankee Air Museum
The Story of the Yankee Air Museum begins in 1941 when Willow Run Airport was built by the Ford Motor Company to serve as an airfield for their B-24 Bomber Plant. This was the first aircraft manufacturing complex to use Ford’s automotive mass production technique, a leading technological innovation of the time. Ford Motor Company built 8,685 B-24 Liberators from 1942 until the end of World War II. At its peak, the Willow Run facility employed over 42,000 people and produced one B-24 every 59 minutes. When the war was over, the airport became the hub for passenger flights and air freight in the Detroit Metropolitan area. To learn more of the history of the Willow Run area, please visit: http://gisapp.ewashtenaw.org/public/hp/willowrunstory/
In 1981, a group of aviation enthusiasts, adopting the name Yankee Air Force, shared the desire to preserve the facts and glamour of southeastern Michigan’s aviation history. They began to research, restore, and preserve the all but forgotten history of Willow Run Airport. Their initial goal was to acquire one of the original U.S. Army Air Forces’ hangars and restore it to its World War II condition. With the help of Wayne County, the owners of the airport, this first goal was accomplished and the Yankee Air Museum was born. Their second goal, to obtain a B-24 built at Willow Run, has proven to be elusive. Over 18,000 Liberators were built and just 11 survive today, of which only 4 were built at Willow Run.
Since 1981, the Yankee Air Museum has acquired and returned to flying status three World War II aircraft. The first plane was acquired in 1982, a Douglas C-47D Skytrain. The “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a two engine transport which was built in 1945. Rides on the C-47 are scheduled for the summer months and are available for purchase by Yankee Air Museum members only. The B-17G Flying Fortress, a four engine heavy bomber which was used in the movies “Tora!Tora!Tora!” and “Closing The Ring”, was purchased in 1986. The “Yankee Lady” underwent extensive restoration and was returned to flying status in 1995. The B-25D Mitchell, a two engine medium bomber similar to the type used in Jimmy Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo, was acquired in 1987. The “Yankee Warrior” saw combat in World War II and is one of only two B-25Ds still flying today. The “Yankee Lady” and “Yankee Warrior” are flown and displayed at numerous air shows from May through September and rides on them are available for purchase by the public. They are the pride of the Yankee Air Museum and its greatest ambassadors!
On October 9, 2004, the Yankee Air Museum at Willow Run Airport suffered a terrible fire that destroyed the historic hangar housing the Museum and virtually all of the documents and artifacts. Through the heroic efforts of a few members, the beautifully restored B-17, C-47 and B-25 flyable aircraft were moved out of the building before the fire reached them, thus saving the heart of the collection. All the historic aircraft on display outside of the hangar in the Air Park were untouched by the fire. The Museum did lose all of the tooling, equipment and spare parts for the aircraft plus all of the office equipment and display fixtures totaling well over $1,000,000 in replacement value. A small number of non-flyable aircraft that were undergoing restoration inside the hangar were lost as well.
The Yankee Air Museum members, staff and volunteers immediately began to recover and rebuild. The aircraft, which continued their flight schedules after the fire, were moved into a hangar loaned by the Wayne County Airport Authority, which manages Willow Run Airport. The volunteers and staff set up an office at the Airport and continued the business of the Museum. The Michigan Aerospace Foundation was formed as a sister organization of the Yankee Air Museum to plan and fund future expansion of the new Museum facilities. They met with architects and Willow Run Airport management just a few days after the fire and were given the go ahead to begin the planning process to lead to the construction of a new hangar and Museum.
Then in 2007, the hard work, dedication, planning and fund raising for the new Yankee Air Museum began to bear fruit. A ground breaking ceremony for the new Yankee Air Museum was held in April 2007 at the Air Park. A schoolhouse that was built by Henry Ford in 1938 and used during WWII as an officers’ club had been donated to the Museum. Shortly after the ground breaking, the schoolhouse was moved to its new location on A Street on the east side of the Airport. After much work, the Yankee Air Museum David and Andrea Robertson Education Center was dedicated and opened for business in June 2010. The Education Center serves as the Museum’s library and archives center.
In 2009, to re-establish the actual Museum that was lost in 2004, the Yankee Air Museum purchased a building from the Michigan Institute of Aviation and Technology (MIAT). The building is on D Street on the east side of the Airport and south of the Education Center. In October 2010, six years to the day of the fire, The Yankee Air Museum Collections & Exhibits Building was dedicated and opened to the public. The facility is 47,000 sq. ft. and houses permanent and rotating aviation and historical displays, restoration projects, a retail store and movie theatre. The “Headquarters” is also home to Yankee Air Museum staff and volunteers. There are meeting rooms and banquet facilities available to the public for rent, plus machine shops and storage space for the Museum collection. An outside area next to the Museum is the new home of the Air Park.
In 2011, negotiations began between RACER Trust and the Michigan Aerospace Foundation and Yankee Air Museum for acquiring part of the old Bomber Plant. The Bomber Plant was most recently the General Motors Powertrain Plant and is on the northwest side of Willow Run Airport. In April 2013, the nearly two years of negotiations resulted in the acceptance of an offer by the Foundation to carve out a small piece of the Bomber Plant and restore it as the new home of the Museum. The Save The Bomber Plant campaign set a goal to raise $8 million in cash, pledges, in-kind donations and pro-bono services to acquire, enclose, secure and power up 144,000 square feet of the facility. This would create a new permanent home for the Museum, its exhibits, educational programs and its flyable and static aircraft at one location. The face of the campaign became “The Rosies”, a group of local volunteers who dressed as Rosie the Riveter and appeared at various events. The campaign captured the attention of many and received media attention on local, national and even international levels. On March 29, 2014 a Guinness Book of World Records was set in Hangar 1 with 778 women dressed as Rosie the Riveter, all in one place! The fund raising campaign was successful and on October 30, 2014, an event has held where all the documents were signed, the purchase was finalized and a new name was announced. The historic Willow Run Bomber Plant officially became the future home of the National Museum of Aviation and Technology at Historic Willow Run!
This is just the beginning. A new campaign has been launched to raise the funds to build the actual Museum and its exhibits within the Bomber Plant. The stories of the “How Detroit Saved the World” and “Rosie the Riveter” will be told on the site where they happened some 70 years ago. The Yankee Air Museum’s static aircraft and the David and Andrea Robertson Education Center will be moved inside. This will put the Museum one step closer to achieving one of its original goals, the acquisition of a Ford built B-24 Liberator. The additional space will allow the Museum to integrate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) into its exhibits and programs to inspire young people to pursue education and career opportunities in those fields. The Bomber Plant location re-creates the original excitement of the Yankee Air Museum by bringing the flyable aircraft, exhibits, restoration and educational programs back to a single site. Various pieces of the Museum will move into the Bomber Plant as it is renovated and it is estimated the new Museum will be fully opened by 2018.
Today the Yankee Air Museum, its aircraft, events and educational programs are available for the public to experience and enjoy. The flyable aircraft are available for rides so people can re-live an important part of American and Michigan history. Public relations, membership and volunteer programs actively reach out into the community to create awareness of the Museum and invite interested people to become involved. The THUNDER OVER MICHIGAN™ Air Show at Willow Run Airport is one of the premier annual aviation events in the country. A new Vietnam War exhibit features a restored F-4 Phantom and UH-1 “Huey” helicopter. The Yankee Air Museum continues in its mission of “Honoring aviation history and its participants through a living, flying museum.” Come visit the Yankee Air Museum and join the excitement!