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Prairie Aviation Museum hosts final 2 Open Cockpit Days of the year

Six grey-haired men in work clothes smile at the camera, standing in a group in front of a green Army helicopter and mini-runway in the Chuck Shumacher Aviation Airpark.
Lauren Warnecke
Approximately 30 active members of the Prairie Aviation Museum beside Central Illinois Regional Airport maintain a collection of decommissioned commercial and military aircraft. They serve as volunteer tour guides on weekends, including special Open Cockpit Days taking place Saturday and Sept. 16.

On any given Wednesday, some of the Prairie Aviation Museum's 30-ish active members arrive to the non-descript tan building tucked between Central Illinois Regional Airport and an empty hanger once used by State Farm.

They come for what they call their “weekly meeting.” Many of them are veterans; most are men of a certain age looking for fellowship and fun during retirement. Their common bond is a love for aviation.

“We get together and drink coffee. We eat whatever treats somebody brings. We tell tall tales. And then we go out and piddle on things a little at a time,” said John Eckley, eldest grandson to Ralph Eckley. The latter Eckley was a pilot, aviation enthusiast and reporter for the Monmouth Daily Review-Atlas. (Aside: Monmouth is a key player in Illinois aviation history, with the state’s oldest continually operated airport.)

“We’re about having fun, educating and inspiring all at the same time, using aviation as our platform,” Eckley said.

It’s not all fun and coffee. The members and other volunteers — which have included high schoolers and Eagle Scouts completing community service projects — spend time each week maintaining the museum’s collection of more than a dozen planes and helicopters. These sit outside in the airpark in the elements, thus requiring continual care. Inside is a hodgepodge of lovingly curated photographs, models and other ephemera related to all things aviation.

Each weekend, the public is invited to tour the Chuck Schumacher Aviation Airpark and pint-sized museum, with members on hand to share tidbits about each aircraft and trade stories.

Standing in front of a battered, old Army helicopter, a Vietnam veteran in his painting clothes smiles at the camera
Lauren Warnecke
Vietnam veteran Dick Briggs with the "Huey" helicopter at Prairie Aviation Museum

The collection contains several military aircraft on permanent loan, while others have been purchased or donated. They typically aren’t cleared to fly, so the bulk of the cost associated with the museum is transporting each acquisition, which may be stored on a faraway base or on an aircraft carrier on the coast. This can cost as much as $25,000, so the nonprofit Prairie Aviation Museum operates entirely on volunteers and donated goods. The Grumman F-14D Tomcat was the only plane to fly into Central Illinois Regional Airport before it was decommissioned. A crane hauled it over the fence into the airpark.

Open Cockpit Day

On Saturday, Aug. 19, members will be out in force for Open Cockpit Day, held the third Saturday of each month from May through September.

Just what it sounds like, Open Cockpit Day is a chance for visitors to get a close-up view of the single pilot’s seat of an A-4M Skyhawk, climb into the Tomcat’s engine intake and learn how to fly a Hughes 269A helicopter.

On hand to share stories about each craft are volunteers like Eckley, retired Marines Dick Briggs and David Wilson, and Tom Kuhn, who served in the Air Force. It’s unprecedented access to both technical information and real-life experiences the men had with the planes and helicopters on the lot.

Briggs served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967. On a sample tour of the airpark, he points to patched bullet holes in a Bell UH-1H Iroquois helicopter. This is an Army helicopter, but Briggs, a Marine, was transported in one like it. He noted that soldiers would sit on their helmets to protect them from getting shot underneath.

“In Vietnam, [the Huey] was modified to be an assault weapon,” said Kuhn. “This one was in combat.”

This particular helicopter flew in Vietnam for three years and was involved in three major accidents — including a shrapnel hit from a gunship. Wilson pointed to where the “door gunner” sat, facing out with the door open while operating a machine gun. This so-called “Army workhorse” could also be converted into an ambulance helicopter or supply transport vehicle.

Wilson joined the Marine Corps in 1968 while still a student at Illinois Wesleyan University. Thus, his call sign is “Titan,” which is painted on the side of the airpark’s A-4M Skyhawk — Wilson's favorite plane to fly. Kuhn and Wilson never saw active combat but say the Vietnam vets who come to the museum react in all different ways.

A former pilot in a baseball hat and aviator sunglasses smiles in front of a Marine fighter jet
Lauren Warnecke
Captain David Wilson's was a Marine pilot. His call sign, "Titan," refers to his time as a student at Illinois Wesleyan University.

“The veterans that used to fly on those [Hueys] as a combat infantry man would put their hand on it, and often times they’d walk away in tears," Wilson said, "just because of the memories they had of it either getting them into a tough spot or getting them out of one.”

“We’ve had vets not even approach the helicopter,” Kuhn said. “They’d be standing about 50 feet back. Some would eventually come up and others would not.”

Briggs was on the ground in Vietnam for 13 months. He says he feels comfortable talking about memories from the war and enjoys telling stories to the youth who visit the museum.

“I have no PTSD — that I know of," he said, laughing. Though a short period of time, his two years in the Marines is a huge part of his story.

"My wife keeps saying, ‘Why do the old men keep bringing up the war?’ It’s always a part of your life.”

The Prairie Aviation Museum, 2929 E. Empire St. in Bloomington, is open Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. The final Open Cockpit Days of the year are Aug. 19 and Sept. 16. Hours are decreased slightly beginning in October. General admission is $5; kids 5 and under, museum members and active military enter for free.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.