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Posted on Mon, Sep 13, 2010 : 6:03 a.m.

Yankee Air Museum to celebrate grand reopening next month, exactly 6 years after devastating fire

By Tom Perkins


Renovations are under way in the museum's future Collections and Exhibits Room.

Tom Perkins | For

Bob Hynes vividly recalls the morning after the Yankee Air Museum at the Willow Run Airport burned.

“We were devastated and moping around because everything was lost,” said Hynes, the museum’s public relations director. 

Lost in the fire were eight aircraft, uniforms, medals, and thousands of artifacts valued at more than $4 million.

“A couple of the pilots decided to take the B-25 out to make sure it was OK,” Hynes continued. “We were standing out there when it flew over us near the museum, and the mood just changed. There was a renewed devotion that ‘We’re not going to let this die, we’re going to keep it going.’”

Six years, countless man-hours, thousands of donations and plenty of sweat later, the Yankee Air Museum is celebrating its grand reopening. The event is timed nearly six years to the minute of the devastating Oct. 9, 2004 fire.


Yankee Air Museum Executive Director Randy Hotton is preparing for the grand reopening.

Tom Perkins | For

The public is invited to the museum's Inaugural Gala - the first event under the roof of the new Collections and Exhibits Building, on Oct. 9. The following day will see the “Yankee Salute To Aviation,” which includes helicopter rides, an all-female skydiving team, a battle re-enactment and more.

Although the rebuilding process has been long, morale has never dipped, said Randy Hotton, the museum’s executive director. The Yankee team remained dedicated and benefitted from hundreds of volunteers, donors, the generosity of the Willow Run Airport and the interest of veterans and retirees involved with the Willow Run assembly plant.

“Once we decided to revitalize, there was this vision of the future that most people captured and wanted to get involved,” Hotton said.

After the fire, the task of figuring out “what we wanted to be when we grow up” was the most difficult, Hotton said. To that end, the Yankee team hired two renowned museum consultants and conducted a year-long examination of what needed to be done to establish it as a relevant museum in the community.

The idea came to focus on the region’s contribution to the build-up and success of World War II.

“We are located at a place that epitomizes mobilization,” Hotton said. “Our auto companies came in and said to the Army, ‘We can build an airplane an hour on the assembly line,’ and this has really captured the imagination of anyone who hears about it.”

When the museum re-opens on Oct. 10, it will zero in on that aspect of the United States' war effort. The front of the new building, which the Yankee Air Museum bought from Willow Run Airport and renovated, features a small movie theater playing the story of how Willow Run became the aviation production center.


The Yankee Air Museum is shown on the outside.

Tom Perkins | For

The large, adjacent 32,000-square-foot Collections and Exhibits room will house a full-scale B-24 undergoing renovation to include some of the original parts made in the “Arsenal of Democracy." The museum is also building a display of model - to scale at 1/72nd - of the bomber plant with planes being assembled.

Toward the south end of the space, in an area designated for events like weddings or class reunions, will be a tile display telling the history of how the United States got involved and prepared for WWII - and Willow Run’s critical role in its success.

Hynes said the museum was fortunate to receive hundreds of donations in the months after the fire and has been able to rebuild its collection. Preparations are under way to have that collection ready by Oct. 10.

Some of the highlights include a Spad airplane, the first aircraft ever employed by the U.S. Army and a Huey helicopter like one of the 7,000 used in Vietnam. There will be a Link Trainer, which taught pilots how to fly in the clouds during training for WWII, and kids and adults can play in one of three flight simulators.

Additional displays include a truck used for carrying bombs to planes, a bomb cart, an engine display of the bomber engines made at the Ford Rogue River Plant and a retail shop.

The Yankee Air Museum also has plans beyond the building opening next month. A $45 million Yankee Air Museum Display Building is being planned for adjacent leased land. While the display building will be similar to the current facility, it will be much larger and more capable of telling the story of Willow Run, Hotton said.

Hotton also said a $4 million to $5 million, 200-foot by 200-foot airplane hangar will house the B-25, C-47 and B-17 bombers, along with other planes stored and flown when weather is right.

The Yankee Air Museum also owns an education center on its campus, which officials say is consistent with one of its new focuses. Camps have already started, and Hotton said there are plans to expand that programming.

A year ago, the museum established its board of directors. Hotton is its first executive director, and he has a long relationship with Willow Run. He worked at four airplane companies at the airport, and his father built bombers in the plant in 1942.

“For me, this is really exciting,” he said. “I’m really attached to this airport, and I think people are really looking forward to this.”

Tom Perkins is a freelance writer for Reach the news desk at or 734-623-2530.


Nicholas Urfe

Tue, Apr 23, 2013 : 5:22 p.m.

What caused the original fire? I did some searches but could not find the info.

Urban Sombrero

Tue, Sep 14, 2010 : 6:23 a.m.

I was so sad when the original museum burned. It was such a neat place to go and learn about WWII. The aircraft they had in there were spectacular, not to mention all the other things: photos, flight suits, helmets, etc. My brother and Sister in law were married on a plane that took off out of Willow Run. They had their wedding reception at the museum. It was one of the coolest, most unique weddings I've ever been to. I videotaped a lot of the reception, so we had a pretty good video record of a lot of what was in there before the fire. I'll be interested to check out the new, renovated place.


Mon, Sep 13, 2010 : 9:32 p.m.

Like sbbuilder I spent about a year ( probably in 1986) doing "go-for" stuff on the B-17. She was in pieces at the time, and incredibly I now see her flying above my house almost every day from April through October on fund raising trips. As much as I love airplanes ( especially the old war birds) I agree with sbbuilder, I loved even more listening to the stories from the guys that flew those birds. I cannot remember his last name but I worked for a "lead" guy named Charlie who was a pilot of a B-17. He treated that old B-17 as it lay in pieces at the Yankee Air Museum as if it was one of his kids. While he didn't fly that specific bird over Germany, he flew its brother over Germany and it brought him home, time after time. I remember him telling me how adding drop tanks to the P-51 fighter saved his life, before that, they didn't have fighter escort that could cover them all the way into Germany. Once they got that, the loss of B-17's and B-24's dropped significantly. The B-17 he flew brought him home so he could carry on his life, raise a family and enjoy the rest of his years. It is not likely that Charlie is still with us, he would probably be around 90 years old or older at this point.


Mon, Sep 13, 2010 : 8:36 p.m.

Ploesti and the b24 Cannot wait to visit


Mon, Sep 13, 2010 : 8:23 p.m.

I remember that fire. I saw the smoke from I 94 coming from Ann Arbor. I thought wow, that is a lot of smoke. Then I realized something really big was happening. We were among hundreds that witnessed the fire that our daughter not more then 2 years prior had her birthday there. Yes, a girl had a party there. We will be there on opening day. Thanks for letting us know that Yankee Air is finally awakening the sleeping giant.


Mon, Sep 13, 2010 : 12:51 p.m.

How can you build a 'full scale' model? Or, are you guys just restoring the late model B-24 that sat outside just west of the old hangar? People used to confuse that plane with a B-17 because it had the standard tail instead of the twin vertical stabilizers. I loved the planes. Heck, I'm a plane nut. But what I really miss are the old timers who were there and did that. Now I've got a family, and that more than consumes my free time. Back then I was single, and could spend as much free time as I wanted getting greasy. Perhaps I'll bring the family by for the opener.


Mon, Sep 13, 2010 : 10:21 a.m.

As wiki says it is an 'oft-misquoted remark'. I don't know I wasn't there. But I can certainly provide you an internet link to attribute different versions to Santayana. I always heard, and oft repeat, the Burke version; the choice of 'destined' over 'condemned', 'doomed' or 'bound' (I have heard them all) is more subtle to me and makes the repeating more of a journey and less of a sentence.


Mon, Sep 13, 2010 : 9:55 a.m.



Mon, Sep 13, 2010 : 9:34 a.m.

Rasputin, you may be paraphrasing Santayana. If I have it right he wrote "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Santayana's quote may have been taken from Edmund Burke "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."


Mon, Sep 13, 2010 : 8:49 a.m.

It is nice to see that in America we still have the power to be great. I look forward to the displays of American Greatness!

Top Cat

Mon, Sep 13, 2010 : 7:56 a.m.

@sbbuilder. We are building a full scale model of a B-24 Liberator for permanent display at the new museum. We need you back!


Mon, Sep 13, 2010 : 7:37 a.m.

Congratulations! To quote George Santayana: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." This museum, like all others, is to inform and educate future generations.


Mon, Sep 13, 2010 : 6:31 a.m.

Tom - Thank you for the article. The Museum is an important link to part of our area's history. With so many families having members who worked in the factories or used the equipment they made, losing it would be very bad. Thank you everyone for digging in and helping in what ever way you did. Please take the time to visit the museum.


Mon, Sep 13, 2010 : 6:13 a.m.

In the early Nineties, when I was a member, I remember crawling around inside the wings of the Yankee Lady with rags and Q-tips cleaning out the accumulated corrosion and gunk of nearly fifty years. It was so cool to be around folks from the war era. They played big band music all day. We would eat a lunch fixed by the ladies in the adjacent lunch room, then go back to work restoring the 'heavy metal'. I had donated some items that had been sitting around for years, including the gyro assembly for a Norden bomb sight. They had uniforms and other items that the Smithsonian didn't even have. Their OV-10 Bronco was at the very end of a many years long total restoration. The goal was for it to compete at the annual fly-in at Oshkosh. That plane, and many others burnt up in the fire. I wish them well.