You hear people say it again and again. “I never visit local attractions unless I have company from out of town I need to entertain.” I know people who have never visited out local zoo, art museum, theaters, parks and historical sites. We’ve done our fair share in checking Ohio’s offerings, but this particular summer we are discovering some lesser-known attractions. The Arthritis Foundation holds an annual car show and as a perk for attending the organizers held a cruise-in to the Champaign Aviation Museum. I’d visited the Wright-Patterson Air and Space museum in Dayton, but never the Champaign museum.
If you’ve been to the Wright-Patterson museum (which is spectacular) the sheer size of the place is impressive. The Champaign museum by comparison is housed in one large hangar. As the group pulled in and parked, I made the assumption that it was going to be a collection of a few small planes and musty effects. Our tour guide rolled back the hangar doors and we walked inside. There were collector planes here and there, and everywhere you looked were pieces and parts of an enormous B-17 Flying Fortress. The recently assembled section of fuselage took up a large amount of floor space in the middle of the hangar. As the tour guide talked on I found myself drawn to the sounds of work going on in the other half of the hangar.
I poked my head around the B-17 and ran into Jack Bailey. He looked up at me and asked “Do you know how to paint? My granddaughter was supposed to do this for me today and she bailed.” He was painting dozens of flat metal pieces with army green paint. I asked what they were for, and they were connectors for the wing assembly he was working on. He showed me how they fit the wing assembly and told me more about the restoration project. The volunteer workers come from all walks of life, and share a love of aviation with their skill in metalwork. It turns out that the Champaign facility is one of the top restoration facilities in the country. Volunteers also restored another B-17, the Liberty Bell, which had been nearly destroyed in a fire. Volunteers rebuilt the plane’s engines. Jack showed me all through the restoration area, explaining different aspects of the current B-17 restoration project. When I wondered aloud where in the world they were going to assemble the whole plane he told me that there were plans to add onto the museum. The new wing will house the B-17. It’s not just that the planes they work on are restored; they are rebuilt so that they may be flown, which means replacing metal struts and calibrating tolerances to make these planes safe to fly. They have a flight schedule; if you’re interested you can take a ride in one of these interesting planes.
I asked Jack how he came to be an engineer. He told me that he got into his field with only a high school diploma. He’d been working on the family farm when he got a job in manufacturing. Through talent and hard work along with some dedicated mentors by the time he retired he’d worked up to Senior Manufacturing Engineer in his company. After he retired, he put his engineering skills to work at the Aviation Museum. His story reminded me of my mother, who turned a degree in art into a long career as a mold design engineer. Back then it was possible to do such things—these days I think talent and innate skills are passed over for those with degrees. Both Jack and my mom were mentored by others in their work; I don’t see industry taking time with employees in that manner any longer. It’s a shame. Jack worries that there are no younger people stepping forward to volunteer for restoration projects at the museum. We talked a bit about that, and I wondered aloud if it isn’t because industry doesn’t focus on fabrication any longer. Components arrive from elsewhere to be assembled, but it’s rare to have a dedicated industrial fabrication unit for special parts. Whatever the reason, times and interests are changing. A volunteer with a question diverted Jack from our conversation. The tour group caught up with me and I was surrounded. I tried to find Jack before we left to thank him for speaking to me, but he’d disappeared somewhere into the shop, engrossed in problem solving.
I hope he reads this someday so he’ll know of my appreciation. The tour was over and it was time to leave. As we rumbled away in our old cars it seemed fitting that we were visiting this place in vehicles that most of these tinkerers and makers must have driven as young men. Do take time to visit when you can.