A VISIT TO THE PRAIRE AVIATION MUSUEM

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Story and photos by Scott Jankowski

The twin cities of Bloomington and Normal Illinois are located roughly 135 miles Southwest of Chicago Illinois and 162 miles Northeast of St. Louis Missouri. Approximately 130,000 people call the 2 cities home and is also the headquarters for State Farm Insurance and Country Financial. Like any city of this size, airline service is important and Bloomington Normal is no different. The Central Illinois Regional Airport (KBMI) is located 3 miles East of Bloomington and is currently served by 5 airlines. The current terminal was opened in 2001 and has a total of 6 jetways and features 2 runways, 20/2 and 29/11. This is where we find the Prairie Aviation Museum.

The Prairie Aviation Museum is located on the west side of the airport at 2929 East Empire Street Bloomington IL 61704. The museum turned 38 years old in 2023 and can trace its roots back to 1980, the present name was adopted in 1983 with a goal set to acquire and restore a Douglas C-47/DC-3. The original museum could be found in the main terminal of the old airport, they moved into their present location in 1988. Interest in the museum and membership grew with its vision finally realized when the group purchased N763A a 1942 vintage C-53 in 1984 for a total price of $32,000. Please note these are file photos.

N763A is a former U.S Army Air Corps serial number 41-20124, which was built by Douglas Aircraft at its Santa Monica California plant. The U.S. Navy would take possession of the aircraft as bureau number 05078 as an R4D-3, after the war the aircraft would be flown by numerous airlines including Continental and Southern. The Rockdale Flying Service of Rockdale Texas would purchase the aircraft in 1968 and applied its now familiar Ozark Airlines livery. When the Prairie Aviation Museum purchased the aircraft, it had not flown for 14 years, it would take 8 months of volunteer work to bring the aircraft back to a flyable condition. N763A would be flown to its new home and would spend the next 25 years with the Museum until 2009 when the upkeep of the aircraft became too much, especially with no hanger to protect the aircraft. The aircraft would be passed on to the Antique Airplane Restoration group located in Marathon Florida, before being acquired by a private owner and flown to Anchorage Alaska. As of the writing of this article N763A is still reported as active in Alaska still flying in its Ozark Airlines markings. Please note these are file photos.

The museum would continue to grow however and has acquired several fantastic artifacts, memorabilia, and display aircraft. The museum currently has 12 aircraft on display in its outdoor airpark named after Chuck Schumacher. Mr. Schumacher volunteered his time for more than 25 years and did everything from cutting grass to dismantling aircraft for transportation to the museum. The outdoor airpark has a mixture of civilian, military, fixed wing, and rotary wing aircraft on display as well as engines, ground support equipment and navigational aids.

The civilian aircraft currently on display include N900S, a 1958 built Cessna 310B, serial number 35742. A total of 5,449 of this twin engine 4 to 6 seat aircraft were produced during its production run from 1954 to 1980.

The second civilian aircraft on display is N6272X, a 1962 vintage Aero Commander 680F, construction number 680F-1159-83. This 7-passenger piston powered aircraft was acquired by the museum in late 2020.

The museum uses a Hughes 269 light utility helicopter as its “traveling ambassador” to local events to promote the museum. This helicopter is mounted on a trailer to allow the museum to tow it in local parades. A total of 2,800 were built during tis production run from 1961 to 1982, this example was formerly used by the Cleveland Ohio Police Department.

Also on display are a pair of Bell Helicopter products including Bell UH-1H Iroquois, bureau number 67-17832. The UH-1 is affectionately known as the “Huey” with this example seeing extensive service during the Vietnam War with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company better known as the Crusaders. After serving proudly in the Vietnam War this helicopter saw service with the 101st Airborne out of Fort Campbell Kentucky, with its final spent in active service with the Illinois National Guard. The museum would purchase this example in 1988 and is one of over 16,000 built during its production run between 1959 and 1976.

The other Bell Helicopter on display is a twin-engine Bell AH-1J Sea Cobra with bureau number 157771. A total of 69 AH-1J Sea Cobras were built for the U.S. Marine Corps, this is an upgraded version of the AH-1G Cobra which has only 1 engine. This specific 2-person attack and close support helicopter entered service in 1970 and was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) New River NC, Camp Pendleton CA, and Kaneohe Bay HI before the museum would acquire it under loan courtesy of the National Naval Aviation Museum located at Pensacola FL.

A pair of Jet trainers are on display and includes a 1955 vintage Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star serial number 53-5979. Lockheed Aircraft built a total of 5,661 T-33’s with another 866 built under license in Canada and Japan. This 2-seat trainer spent 10 years with various United States Air Force units before being transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana IL, until the museum would acquire it in 1993. This example is on display but is still undergoing further restoration.

The second trainer is a 1961 built, 2 seat supersonic Northrop T-38A Talon, serial number 60-0549. This was one of over 1,100 delivered to the United States Air Force before production would end in 1972. This example served with numerous training squadrons located at Randolph Air Force Base TX, Tyndall Air Force Base FL, and Williams Air Force Base AZ before being transferred to the Chanute Air Force Base IL in 1975 to serve as a ground trainer. The museum would acquire this T-38 in 1993 on permanent loan from the United States Air Force Museum located at Dayton OH.

The final group of aircraft comprise a combination of fighter and attack aircraft. The first of these aircraft is a 1955 manufactured North American F-100C serial number 54-1784. The single seat supersonic fighter bomber is nicknamed “The Hun”, with the museum’s example assigned to the Chanute Air Force Base IL Training Center in 1955 and spent its entire time at this base a training airframe. After its time in the U.S. Air Force the aircraft would be transferred to several different museum’s and was painted in its current U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds markings in 1995. The Prairie Aviation Museum acquired the aircraft in 2009 and transported it intact to the museum.

A 1976 vintage McDonnell Douglas A-4M Skyhawk, bureau number 160036 is on display and is also on loan from the National Naval Aviation Museum down in Pensacola FL. A total of 2,960 A-4’S of all types were built during its production run from 1954 to 1979. The A-4 is a single seat attack aircraft that carries the nicknames “Scooter” and “Heinemann’s Hot Rod” the name of the aircraft’s designer. The museums A-4M is one of 160 built specifically for the U.S. Marine Corps and spent the majority of its time serving with VMA-331 “The Banshees” and VMA-223 “The Bulldogs” The museum acquired the aircraft in 2000 and was last based at Naval Air Station (NAS) Memphis flying for Marine Air Group (MAG) 42. The aircraft carries the names of two Prairie Aviation Museums who flew A-4’s David Wilson and Chuck Spreitsma who actually flew this very A-4.

On display is a 1967 built single seat tactical attack aircraft the Voight A-7A Corsair II, bureau number 152681. This aircraft, like many others, is also on loan from the National Naval Aviation Museum located at Pensacola FL. This is one of 1,569 A-7’s manufactured before production ended in 1984. The A-7 was a workhorse of both the U.S. Air Force and Navy and saw extensive service in the Vietnam War. The museum’s A-7 carriers the name of David Aldridge a former A-7 pilot and Prairie Aviation Museum member. This A-7A last saw service with VA-203 “Blue Dolphins” and arrived at the museum in 1991.

One aircraft of particular interest is a 1962 built McDonnell Douglas F-4N Phantom II, bureau number 150444. This particular 2 seat, carrier/land-based fighter attack aircraft served with VF-161 “Chargers” aboard the U.S.S Midway during the Vietnam War. It was this particular type of aircraft that Springfield IL native LCDR Ron “Mugs” McKeown and his Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Jack “Fingers” Ensch flew from the deck of the U.S.S Midway. On May 23rd, 1972, they became one of only three F-4 crews to be credited with shooting down 2 aircraft in the same dogfight, in this case a pair of Mig-17’s. The museum’s F-4 is painted as a dedication to this crew and last flew with VF-191 on the U.S.S Coral Sea. The museum also acquired this aircraft on permanent loan from the National Museum of Naval Aviation.

The final aircraft on display is a Grumman F-14A Tomcat, bureau number 161163 which served in the U.S. Navy from 1981 to 2006. This 2-seat supersonic, swing wing, air superiority, multi-role fighter was designed and built to replace the iconic McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom. This is one example of 712 built before production ended in 1991 and has served on numerous aircraft carriers including the U.S.S. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Constellation, and last served with VF-213 aboard the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt. This F-14 was converted to a F-14D in 1991 which gave the aircraft an upgraded avionics package, radar, and more powerful engines. This particular aircraft was flown directly to the museum in 2006 and remains the only aircraft to do so.

This all-volunteer run, non-profit museum and airpark is currently open on weekends from 1100-1500 Central time and is closed during the Winter months. The museum also hosts a unique event called Open Cockpit Day, one Saturday a month they open up the cockpits of the display aircraft, so guests get a close up look inside the cockpits of the aircraft. The museum itself has a host of interesting exhibits and model aircraft on display. A lot more information about the museum itself can be found on its website www.prairieaviationmuseum.org. If you are in the area or passing through, I highly recommend a stop here. Until next time “Blue Skies to All!”

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