So, I got to go on a ride in the Douglas C-47 Skytrain named Yankee Doodle Dandy! As one of a group of travel writers visiting the Ann Arbor area, on the morning of December 1st, we were airborne! We flew over Ann Arbor and even caught a glimpse of the University of Michigan’s “Big House” football stadium.
The C-47 is just one of the planes that you too can ride in as part of the Yankee Air Museum. Located at Belleville, Michigan, visitors can book rides on a B-25, the Yankee Warrior; a B-17, The Yankee Lady or a WACO biplane! Built in 1992, the model is a modern replica of a 1930’s biplane.
My ride was on the C-47, a beautiful military transport aircraft that was developed by the Douglas Aircraft Company. You may be more familiar with their company name today of McDonnell Douglas.
The C-47 was one of the transport aircraft used by the Allies in World War II. They carried troops in military campaigns and ferried them back to the states. They carried paratroops behind enemy lines in the invasion of Sicily and again in the invasion of Normandy. During the Battle of the Bulge, the C-47 brought supplies to trapped troops in Bastogne. The C-47 was also an important aspect in the Pacific theater as well.
The C-47 was busy after World War II during the Berlin Airlift.
Before we took flight, we had a chance to look around the hangar where the planes are kept and grab a quick breakfast. Dave Callanan, who started as a volunteer and came on board as a staff member covering public relations in 2014, pointed out the various planes.
Kevin Walsh, the Director of the Museum said that the Yankee Air Museum has 250 active volunteers along with seven full-time and two part-time staff members and added that they put on two air shows a year.
The Yankee Air Museum was formed in 1981. “It was formed by a group of aviation enthusiasts,” Kevin said.
He added that at first this non-profit group housed their planes in an all wooden structure that they rented at the Willow Run Airport. “In 2004, there was a fire and we lost almost everything. The B-25 just got back from a flight so we saved it and two volunteers pulled a B-17 through thick smoke and pushed out the C-47. We lost 35,000 artifacts and eight planes.”
Though they had this devastating fire, the members of the group came together and decided to forge ahead. They raised enough money and in 2009, the Yankee Air Museum purchased a building on the property. In 2010, they opened the museum which contains 47,000 square feet of permanent and changing exhibits.
When the chance opened up in 2014 they bought a portion of the former Ford Motor Company Willow Run Bomber Plant and they are raising funds to move into this historic building. The purpose of the Yankee Air Museum is to share both Michigan’s aviation history, but also to tell the story of the contribution of the automotive industry and how they contributed to the World War II War effort. It is a fascinating story. The Willow Run Airport is located on property that once was the site of the Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run Bomber Plant.
Built on a former farm belonging to Henry Ford, Willow Run began with the flattening of over five square miles of land on March 28 1941. It would take 19 months and $200 million (paid for by the government) to finish the largest manufacturing facility of the time. The Willow Run plant included its manufacturing and assembly building, and buildings for administration, flight school, and oil storage and, other necessary structures.
I had the wonderful opportunity to interview the late Lavonne Fred, an Indiana farmer and tractor collector that actually worked at the plant during the war. The Willow Run Airport was built by Ford to serve as an airfield for the plant.
The plant was built-in 1941 and they began producing B-24 Liberator bombers in 1942. Between 1942 and 1945, the Willow Run Bomber factory produced 8,685 planes. At one time, this was the largest industrial facility in the world and was the first aircraft manufacturing complex to use Ford’s automotive mass production method. This site has a lot of history. At their peak, they employed 42,000 people and produced a B-24 every 59 minutes.
When Ford built the factory originally they sold it to the government, and then leased it back for the duration of the war. After the war, Ford declined to purchase the facility then the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation gained ownership. In 1952, it was purchased by General Motors who operated until 2010.
In 2014 the Yankee Air Museum was able to raise enough funds to purchase the 175,000 square feet of the original bomber plant. They bought a portion of the former Ford Motor Company Willow Run Bomber Plant and they are raising funds to move into this building and become the National Museum of Aviation and Technology at Historic Willow Run.
Kevin Walsh said they hope to open the new museum in 2019 or 2020. Thankfully there are preserving some of this history because sadly the remainder of the other buildings of the bomber plant was demolished. The portion that the Yankee Air Museum saved includes the two bay doors from which the B-24 Liberators exited the plant during the war. As a group we were able to walk through this area and it will be an amazing historical asset to see!
Visitors can come see the exhibits on display and learn the important story of the men and women that produced the material that made it possible to win the war. Another neat connection is that the Willow Run Bomber factory is one of the sources for the Rosie the Riveter story.
Besides the normal tours, visitors can also come at set times for a behind the scenes tour to see some of the wonderful artifacts like photographs and documents, and artifacts from the different wars
For more information about a ride in one of the wonderful vintage planes, or a visit to the Yankee Air Museum, call 734-483-4080.