Air museum to drop ‘Yankee’ as it flies toward new era

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The Yankee Air Museum will be soaring shortly into welcoming skies and a bright future, complete with an inspiring and appropriate new name.

Either that, or the new name will be a sniveling kowtow to the gods of political correctness.

That depends on your perspective, and how strongly you feel about the word “Yankee.” But the part about soaring is hard to argue with.

As for the new name, the museum at Willow Run Airport expects to reveal it within two to six weeks, at the same time it officially acquires a chunk of the historic Willow Run bomber plant that churned out B24s during World War II.

For now, says executive director Kevin Walsh, focus groups are gnawing on about two dozen possibilities for what to rebrand a 33-year-old organization that has grown far beyond its hand-me-a-wrench origins.

The names aren’t all unique. Most are in clusters with just a noun or two switched around.

None of the nouns are likely to be Yankee, and as Walsh acknowledges, “we have certainly heard that feedback” from members and boosters who object to the change.

One volunteer remembers a consultant specifically saying the term was politically incorrect — which is probably a misapplication of a phrase that’s typically overworked anyway.

It’s not political correctness that keeps pin-up calendars off the walls at tool-and-die shops with mixed staffs, it’s simple courtesy. And it wasn’t P.C. the other week when a service member in fatigues was denied entry to a school, it was simple stupidity.

‘What does it mean?’

The Yankee Air Museum was founded in 1981 as the Yankee Air Force.

The name was a gentle poke at a Texas-based warbird museum and preservation society known as the Confederate Air Force — and whose name was tongue-in-cheek in its own right.

Given the Confederacy’s close association with notions like slavery and secession, the CAF edged away from the name in 2002 and became the Commemorative Air Force.

Some people, the group acknowledged, were offended by “Confederacy.” It’s harder to find people who don’t like “Yankee,” but tied to an air museum with stratospheric aspirations, the word doesn’t explain much.

“Really, what does it mean?” asks Walsh, 44, who used to run the group’s annual air show as a volunteer and became director in 2012. “In terms of what we do, what is the application?”

In the early years, “we used to be all about airplanes,” he says. “Restore an airplane, put a plaque in front of it.”

Now there’s also a focus on education, particularly in science, math and technology, and on the history of veterans and the wars they fought.

Some of the pioneers still miss the days when they could wander down to the hangar on any given day and watch an unpaid army of enthusiasts restore historic aircraft.

The hangar burned down 10 years ago next month, and for now, the operation is housed in a former aeronautics school.

But the old days aren’t completely gone. As he spoke a few days ago, Walsh was on the exhibit floor, mopping up oil from the radial engine of a twin-tailfin C45 Expeditor.

Planes remain the same

The museum has three historic planes that still fly, each with Yankee in its name: a B17 (Yankee Lady), B25 (Yankee Warrior) and C47 (Yankee Doodle Dandy).

The names and nose art won’t change, Walsh says, unless a sponsor steps forward with a different idea and a large check.

Their location won’t change for at least four years.

Today, they reside in a hangar at the opposite end of Willow Run from the museum. Ultimately, they’ll move to what used to be the exit point of the bomber plant, a 144,000-square-foot space more than three times as large as the current facility.

That will be all that remains of the factory. Much of the rest is already demolished, leaving the museum with heady chores like erecting an entire wall where the rest of the building was attached.

It’s a large and expensive project; the museum raised $8 million already and hopes to scare up another $10 million or more.

But that’s all part of becoming a national attraction. The museum already has an enviable collection, along with something you can’t find at an aviation auction:

Yankee ingenuity.

(313) 222-1874