Champaign Aviation Museum officials want to expand the facility with a second 20,000-square-foot hangar adjacent to the existing one at Grimes Field. Museum Executive Director Dave Shiffer is seeking private donations for the projected $2.3 million expansion and hopes to see construction begin in 2019.
The existing hangar houses four operational WWII aircraft and an A-26 Invader craft sits outside. A recently-donated Culver Cadet aircraft will be joining the other aircraft. The museum features a single-engine Stinson 10-A Voyager, a Fairchild 24, a B-25 Mitchell Bomber and a Douglas C-47 Skytrain, all of which can fly.
“We are full and we need to expand to keep all these aircraft out of the weather,” Shiffer said.
The workshop area is dedicated to restoring a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, with about 110 active volunteers working to craft parts not produced commercially since 1945. At one time there were 12,731 B-17s built, but today only 10 can fly. Shiffer said the Champaign Lady will be the 11th when it is complete.
“The B-17 is a famous aircraft that was part of the reason why we were able to win WWII,” Shiffer said. “People come in from all over the world – we’ve had visitors from England – just to see this project. It’s a destination for people who have an interest in WWII.”
“For B-17s, nothing is available anymore unless you want to pay outrageous prices,” said museum Curator Bill Albers, who lives in Sidney, but travels to Urbana every day to work on the B-17.
The expansion would allow more room to craft and store aircraft parts, as well as more room for display and educational space.
“We got a lot of veterans’ effects donated and we want to not just preserve them but display them, and I’m sure that will be part of the new area,” Shiffer said.
For more information or to make a donation, contact Shiffer at (937) 652-4710 or visit ChampaignAviationMuseum.org.
Aviation Research and Learning Center
The Aviation Museum recently completed an Aviation Research and Learning Center. Albers said the learning center is not a borrowing library because they would prefer to keep track of the books in their collection, but that a list of their materials may soon be accessible through the Champaign County Library.
“This is what we are making available to the public,” he said. “All of these books are related to aviation and have been donated by visitors who would like us to have them. We took up a collection and got $3,200 from the volunteers – this is in addition to their work hours – so we could build some bookshelves out of oak. With the remainder we purchased an overhead projector that we use with our lectures so people can come in and learn about these old aircraft.”
Albers emphasized that nothing in the collection is fiction; subjects include real stories of military heroism, history and engineering.
Albers has been the museum curator for seven years and has contributed to building the radio room and wings of the B-17. He said he is one of seven engineers volunteering for the project and is lucky to have such expertise on his team. He is also a pilot and has his own aircraft at home in Sidney.
Albers was born in Amsterdam, Netherlands, but moved to the United States 52 years ago as an engineer. He delivers a lecture almost every Thursday morning, drawing a crowd of about 50 people who say they like that he speaks as an engineer – all facts.
“I was born in 1940 in Amsterdam, which at that time was occupied by the Germans,” he said. “They stayed for five years and it was no fun at all. During that time the Americans bombed Germany relentlessly; 24,000 young airmen went out and lost their lives in B-17s, and that’s not even counting the 40,000 POWs. The Army Air Corps had the highest casualty rate of any service. The people who work here feel they were liberated by these men and want to give something back.
“If you live in the country then you want to give something back,” he said. “And if your life is good, why shouldn’t you want to give something back? My calling is to be an instructor, a teacher and a lecturer.”
Albers said he looks forward to the unveiling of the Memphis Belle, the first B-17 to fly 25 missions and return. At that time it traveled the country on a war bond tour before going into storage at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, just east of Dayton.
The plane is scheduled to be put on display on May 17, 2018, an occasion which will be marked by an air show of several B-17 and P-51 aircraft. In the days leading up to that event, those aircraft are expected to stage at Grimes Field prior to the airshow, and Albers said the museum will offer rides for about $475 per ride.
“Mothers loved the B-17 because it could be damaged and still come back, sometimes with the tail and half a wing missing,” he said. “It had a self-sealing fuel tank made out of rubber that could take a hit and seal itself, unlike the B-24, which was run all by hydraulics. There are so many things we’re still learning, but if you lecture like I do you have an opportunity to really dig deep.”
Christopher Selmek can be reached at 937-508-2305.