October 2, 2010 at 1:00 am

Yankee Air Museum rebuilt

Officials, volunteers resurrect historic site ravaged in 2004 fire

Volunteers Robert Campbell of Ypsilanti, Bob Laird of Plymouth and Phil Binci of Livonia set up an airplane. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Belleville -- Six years to the day a devastating fire destroyed its historic hangar, the Yankee Air Museum will celebrate its reopening with a gala next Saturday followed by an open house Oct. 10.

"It's been crunch time, it's been exciting," said Kevin Walsh, the event director for the "10/10/10" event. "It's invigorating to be able to say to the public, 'You can come visit us again. This is our new home.' "

The museum was founded in 1981 with the goal to "keep history alive," said Lou Farkas, vice chairman of the museum board. Willow Run produced 8,685 B-24s from 1942 until the end of World War II and in its heyday employed 42,000 people.

Farkas remembers exactly what he was doing around the evening of Oct. 9, 2004. He and his wife ate dinner at a steak house at Ford Road and Interstate 275. His wife pointed out black smoke coming from the direction of the airport. He thought people were burning tires as part of a fire safety drill.

When they arrived home, he heard a bit from the television news -- "fire at a museum," he remembered.

"My stomach sank a little bit and I said, 'God, I hope not.' "

Six volunteers who noticed the fire risked their own lives and rescued the irreplaceable aircrafts in the hangar -- the B-17, B-25 and C-47. Everything else was destroyed.

Over the last six years, the museum survived with revenues generated from flights aboard its historic aircraft -- rescued from the fire, which destroyed the hangar and an estimated $5 million in aircraft and military artifacts.

Dues from the 2,500 members, donations and the annual Thunder Over Michigan air show also helped keep the organization running. In December, the museum was able to buy a 40,000-square-foot building at the Willow Run Airport near the destroyed hangar from the Michigan Institute of Aviation and Technology for $1.8 million. Officials were able to put down a small down payment and now carry a mortgage on what will be the new site.

Organizers hope for up to 8,000 visitors Oct. 10. Guests will see a full-size B-24 being reconstructed, a partially constructed French World War I-era S.P.A.D. aircraft, three aircraft simulators, engines, a Vietnam-era Huey helicopter and other non-flying jets and planes.

Education is also a goal of the museum officials and volunteers, said Randy Hotten, executive director. They've opened a restored 1938 schoolhouse and are working with the Willow Run school district encouraging students to get involved in careers related to aircraft and the industry. And over the years, they've been working with renowned museum consultants to plan for the reopening.

"They've given us a plan to open a museum that will have a lot of meaning to the community," Hotten said. "Not just the flying airplanes, not just the artifacts, but a story of what this region did during World War II."

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Yankee Air Museum Board Vice Chairman Lou Farkas Jr. shows off historic ...