A new $100M Yankee Air Museum Set for Willow Run Airport

The Yankee Air Museum, destroyed in a fire three years ago at Willow Run Airport, outside Detroit, will soar again with a $100 million plan that includes aviation exhibits, aircraft restoration space, a conference center, hotel and restaurant.

The project will be built in phases over 20 years and will recreate the feeling of a World War II air base, said Dennis Norton, president of the Michigan Aerospace Foundation, a group that is working to fund and plan the project.

The main components of the project include an orientation center, exhibit building, restoration facility, operation building and a library, Norton said. That part of the project could be built in five years and cost about $32 million, he said.

The rest of the project is a wish list that will be done in the future as funding becomes available, Norton said. It includes a hotel and conference center, a theater and a restaurant.

"It's an ambitious plan but it is doable," Norton said. "The community has been very supportive and we'll need more help."

The first building of the project is slated for construction next year, said Steven Jones, a principal with Quinn Evans Architects. The Ann Arbor firm is working with URS Corp., of Grand Rapids, on the project. The two-story building includes 60,000-square-foot space and houses an orientation center and offices, Jones said. Construction cost is estimated at $11 million.

So far, organizers have raised $3 million, Norton said, and the foundation hopes to raise the rest by the time construction begins. "We hope to announce a major donation soon," he said.

Norton said the plan is coming together so well that major donors, organizers and government officials will mark the rebirth of the museum in a groundbreaking ceremony April 16.

The museum was housed in a 1941-era hangar and featured a variety of refurbished planes, artifacts and memorabilia until a fire reduced the museum to ashes in October 2004. Most of the planes were on display outside the hanger that day, and volunteers saved a B-25, B-17 and C-47 from the fire. However, the museum lost equipment, tools, aircraft spare parts and display fixtures, estimated at $1 million.

Although the fire was devastating, it brought together the community and supporters to rally behind the cause of rebuilding the museum.

Norton said one of the buildings in the plan is a 2,500-square-foot historic schoolhouse that will be moved to a new location at the airport next month and restored. The foundation raised $630,000 to pay for the project, he said.

Bob Hynes, public relations director of the museum, said the school was built by Henry Ford in 1938 to educate Willow Run children. It was converted into a U.S. Army Air Corps officers club in 1941, he said.

It is believed that Charles Lindbergh spent time in the club when he worked for Ford Motor Co. as a technical consultant for the Willow Run plant's production of the B-24 Liberator bombers, Hynes said.

The school will be used as an office until the orientation building is completed, Hynes said. Later, it will become a library to house artifacts, archives, books and information on local World War II veterans, he said.

Hynes said future plans include an aviation school, a theater, a hotel and a restaurant with an aviation theme. The school will give area high school students an opportunity to study aviation and will be coordinated with Eastern Michigan University, he said.

The theater will feature aviation, war and older movies, and it could be used as a community center, Hynes said. "It's way down the road," Hynes said.

The project aims at featuring the history of military aviation and tell the stories of the people who built and flew in the planes, Hynes said.

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