October 15, 2010 at 1:00 am

Tuskegee museum gets rare World War II plane

Tuskegee Airmen museum obtains training plane
Tuskegee Airmen museum obtains training plane: The World War II T-6 plane is one of two existing aircraft flown by the military's first black aviator group.

Detroit — Fighter planes flown by the nation's first African-American military aviators are hard to find.

That's why officials at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum jumped at the chance to buy one.

The museum spent a year raising the funds to pay for a World War II T-6 training plane — known as the "pilot maker" — once used by the celebrated all-black aviation unit.

The $200,000 deal was finalized in late September.

One other such plane exists that was flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, said Brian Smith, the museum's president. "It's a national treasure."

The T-6 will be housed at Detroit City Airport and used for youth training and air show demonstrations.

The vintage aircraft was produced at North American Aviation's Dallas factory, delivered in 1943 to Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama and used until 1945.

The same Dallas factory also made the P-51, a fighter plane flown by the African-American war pilots to escort bombers.

Though it's unclear what happened to the T-6 from 1946 to 1950, it was returned to the factory in 1951 to be reconditioned.

The seller is the daughter of a former Air Force colonel who purchased the plane in the early 1990s.

Lucinda Novotny said her father, Rayvon Burleson, was unaware of the plane's historical value.

Burleson, who served in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, bought and sold vintage planes as a hobby. He researched the T-6's serial number and learned its place in history. The newfound knowledge made it his favorite.

"Her father really loved that plane," said Novotny's husband, Robert.

Burleson flew it just days before he died and once told his son-in-law that the Tuskegee Airmen were some of the best pilots in the military.

"The Tuskegee Airmen had a profound effect on my father," said Lucinda Novotny of Smyrna, Del.

She inherited the T-6 in 2003, but post-Sept. 11 air restrictions had become intolerable, so she loaned the plane in 2004 to the Experimental Aircraft Association's AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wisc., for display.

Last year, the Novotnys moved the plane to Detroit when the black aviation museum offered to buy it through a broker, rather than let it languish in a hangar.

"I want it somewhere where people can see it," she said.

Smith said the museum's latest acquisition should garner a lot of attention because it's a World War II aircraft.

"It was kind of a romantic war," he said. "We were fighting for a good cause."


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Tuskegee museum’s Brian Smith shows the 1943 WWII plane flown by the military’s first black aviators. / Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News
The Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum raised $200,000 to buy the ...