THE AIR COMBAT MUSEUM - SPRINGFIELD ILLINOIS
South of Chicago by a couple hundred miles is the town of Springfield Illinois. In this unlikely place there is a 'warbird' museum that is growing and growing. The man behind its creation is Mike George, with support from his father, Don, in the background. Mike and his father are self-made men, making their money from security systems. The Museum was the brainchild of Mike, and it runs in parallel with his passion for flying and in particular flying vintage and Warbird aircraft. However, the Museum is more than just a collection of beautifully preserved or restored aircraft, it is a collection of memorabilia, from all areas of the flying world. The Museum also has the benefit of nestling among an F16 Air National Guard unit and the birthplace of Lincoln for those culturally minded!
In Mike's Words&ldots; (back to top)
The reason I started the Museum is unfortunately a long story. When I was eight years old my family visited Chino on my request after reading about it in Air Classica (I think). I remember stopping at a hangar and asking where the warbirds were? They pointed to a hangar where I caught my first glimpse of some 'serious' warbirds. I was so impressed with the rare and beautiful sights that I vowed that if I should ever own such machines I would try and let the world see them. As well as the enjoyment that I get from the aircraft, the fun for me is that others can see and enjoy them as well - they are a part of history. So in 1993 when we built our hangar the Museum was a way for me to keep that vow and share these pieces of history.
I actually started to save for the Mustang when I was 12 years old. I put aside 94% of my income for the future purchase. I hoped for a raise soon as it would take forever at my gross pay of 15 dollars per month!! My obsession continued and I got my flying Licence in 1979, while still at High School, aged 18. My first warbird ride came from the generosity of Rudy Frasca, when he took me airborne in his T-34 Mentor (in 1987). A year later the first part of my dream came true when I bought 'Worry Bird` (P-51) in 1989 at the age of 28. Up until one year ago I was the youngest P-51 owner in the States. The dream had taken 20 years to achieve but it was and still is everything that I had hoped for - dreams can come true!
THE AIRCRAFT (back to top)
During my visit to Mike's Museum I discovered some stunning aircraft, which were all in excellent condition - the polishing seemed to be continuous!
Worry Bird - P51
The Mustang, 'Worry Bird' (N951M), has been restored to an exceptionally high, authentic standard. The Worry Bird insignia was originally on the Mustang flown by Bob Frisch, of the 339th Fighter Group out of Fowlmere, which was a satellite for Duxford during the war. The name 'Worry Bird' originated from a nodding bird that Bob used to carry around with him in the cockpit! Unfortunately, the restoration did not include replacing the nodding bird, but the cockpit looks extremely original and you can imagine a young airman climbing in and flying off in chase of the bandits streaming across the Channel. When the trigger on the stick is pulled you can hear the guns clicking through their firing process. The gun bays themselves are full of original ammunition, though thankfully not connected to the cannons! It is interesting to note that the Mustang was originally procured for the British out of a design request to the North American company in 1940. The NA-73X prototype was built in 117 days and convinced the Brits' to order the aircraft into production, at the same time they christened it the Mustang! When the Rolls-Royce Merlin 65 replaced the Allison V-1710, in early 1943, the British influence was complete.
Corsair (back to top)
Other aircraft in the Museum include a very rare Vought F4U-5N (N49068) Corsair. There is believed to be only one other dash five version of the Corsair still airworthy in the world at present. Mike told me that he had to sell his Ferrari Testarossa, his T-34, his T-6 Harvard, his first Taylorcraft L-2 and get a BIG loan to buy the aircraft! The standard of the Corsair is similar to the Mustang, with even more improvements planned in the future, including adding the original guns and gunsight. The aircraft was previously owned by Dick Bertea (hence the tail letters RB) and operated at Chino by Pacific Fighters. The Corsair was originally designed as a lightweight fighter tailored around the most powerful piston engine then available (Pratt & Whitney XR-2800 Double Wasp engine). Similarly, it needed the largest propeller ever fitted to a fighter at that time to harness the engine's immense power. The Corsair remained in service until after the Korean War and 12,571 examples were built.
B-25J (back to top)
The medium bombers are represented by a B-25J (N898BW), with the nose art depicting the 'Axis Nightmare' theme. The origins of the B-25 can be traced back to 1938 when the USAAC (USA Air Corps) asked the American industry for a new twin-engine attack bomber. The North American company developed the NA-40 prototype, which eventually lost out to the Douglas A-20 in the attack role. However, all was not lost and North American was asked to develop the aircraft to meet the Air Corps' requirement for a medium bomber aircraft. During 1939 many improvements were made and incorporated into the newly designated NA-62 design. The first of these aircraft flew on 19 August 1940 and it was at this stage that the aircraft was named the 'Mitchell' after General 'Billy' Mitchell. The Mitchell had an extremely distinguished career during the war serving on all fronts with virtually all the allied forces. However, perhaps its most remarkable raid was flown on 18 April 1942, when 16 B-25Bs, manned by volunteer crews from the 17th B Group and the 89th Reconnaissance Squadron (led by Lt Col James H Doolittle), flew off the deck of the USS Hornet (CV-8) to make an attack on Tokyo and other Japanese cities. This daring raid showed more than any other the Mitchell's capability to operate very successfully even under the most arduous battle conditions. During the war 9,889 aircraft were built with various type designations.
Soko Galeb (back to top)
Other aircraft in the collection include a Soko Galeb G-2A (N669M), which is a Yugoslavian, tandem place military jet, with similar performance to the Czechoslovakian L-39 but at a reduced cost. The Soko was brought into the country by Steve Knopp, who sold it to Lou Shaw. Lou then flew it (along with 2 other Galebs of his and one owned by Bob Guilford) for the movie Iron Eagle Three - making it a star attraction! The Soko Galeb was the first Yugoslav jet to enter production, the prototype of which first flew in May 1961. The Galeb was mainly used as a training aircraft, although some were used in the attack role. The aircraft is powered by a Viper 11 engine (originally manufactured by Bristol Siddeley) and has a top speed of 812 kph (440 kt), making it a capable aircraft in all respects.
Taylorcraft & T-34A (back to top)
The smaller vintage aircraft are represented by a Talorcraft L-2M (N57688) and a T-34A Mentor (N7132E). Again, both aircraft are in excellent shape. The L-2 was used as a communications aircraft but, perhaps more surprisingly, it was also used for front-line glider pilot training. Here the engine was removed and the second pilot was placed, out in the open, where the engine used to be - not my idea of a good instructor job! The T-34A Mentor was bought by Don as a project, and after restoration it won best T-34 at Oshkosh '95 and a Silver Wrench. The T-34 design came from the Beechcraft Bonanza 35 and it was developed as a two-seat tandem primary trainer. It first flew in 1948, and was used by the USAF and the US Navy in large quantities; it is still a particularly popular aircraft with the civilian warbird community.
Civil Types (back to top)
For those interested in civilian aircraft, the family's 'runabouts' are also housed in the hangar. These include a twin-engine Piper Aerostar and Aero Commander 500U, and an Extra 300. The latest project completed by the Museum is an AT-11, which was a military gunnery trainer version of the civil Beech 18. It originally incorporated a fully working gun turret, which will be refitted in the future.
A PT-22 aircraft was undergoing its final stages of restoration at the Museum. This originally crashed in 1957 and is hasn't flown since. The project was bought three years ago and the restoration has been performed totally in-house, including completely re-skinning the aircraft. Again, the aircraft is being put back into the most authentic state possible and is due to be finished later this year.
OTHER EXHIBITS (back to top)
The Museum is home to much more than just fabulous aircraft. The hangar is full of all sorts of wartime memorabilia. There are old flying documents, flying clothing, models (big and small), guns and many other things to look at. Some of the larger models, even look as if they are airworthy! The Museum has two flying Drones, the oldest of which is Serial Number one, built by Northrop in 1947. The second has been modified for use by children and is a very popular attraction. Apparently, when the children are asked where they are flying off to, the most popular destination is Disney World!
The main 'extra' attraction about this Museum is that it is a working museum, and depending on when you visit you may see the engineers working on the latest restoration project or servicing, say, the Mustang, with panels off, or components in bits, giving the visitor the opportunity to see what's 'under the skin' of these rare machines - a sight that the average person is not normally lucky enough to see.
Mike also has a budding collection of armoured vehicles that he keeps around the place including a British Saladin light armoured gun and a half-track gun. Apparently, the Saladin is road-worthy and Mike often takes it to the local McDonalds drive-through - I imagine he doesn't have any troubled getting served!!
WHAT NEXT? (back to top)
Mike is very passionate about adding some more exciting warbirds to the collection. The next big acquisition on the shopping list is P-38 Lightening, with future goals including an A-26, P-40 and an F86. As well as the warbirds Mike has considered other attractions including a four-engine Heron, some more armoured vehicles and he likes the idea of trying his hand at helicopters. He is continually trying to add more exhibits to give the Museum as much of a 'rounded' appeal as possible - 'something for all tastes is the aim' says Mike.
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