Warbirds Take Back the Va. Beach Skies This Weekend

May 14--VIRGINIA BEACH -- It looked like the end for a while there.

Faster than a fighting Spitfire, word flew across the Internet last year that the Military Aviation Museum's historic airplanes could be sold due to the owner's troubled financial situation. That meant no more trips back in time at the Pungo hangars, and definitely no more air shows.

That was then.

This weekend, those airplanes will again roar over local skies. The sixth annual Warbirds Over the Beach begins Saturday and runs through Sunday.

"The biggest problem I have is people still think we closed," said David Hunt, director of the museum. But, he added, "We're probably stronger now than we were 12 months ago."

The trouble started with a group of for-profit colleges owned by Jerry Yagen, the millionaire entrepreneur who collected and still owns the museum's collection. His schools -- Centura College, the Aviation Institute of Maintenance and Tidewater Tech -- offer classes in various trades, nursing and airplane repair.

Yagen has said little about what caused his finances to plummet, except that changing federal regulations for for-profit colleges caused a temporary cash-flow problem. He stopped paying for the insurance needed to keep the airplanes flying and sold about a dozen of them.

But then, he said, his finances turned around and the schools got back on track.

The museum meanwhile has been working to become more self-sufficient. From the beginning, Yagen used his personal fortune to fund the high cost of keeping the museum's antique aircraft in flying condition. But in the past few months the museum has rolled out several new funding campaigns, including one for airplane maintenance and one for building projects like Goxhill Tower, one of the first training bases for American planes in England. It's currently in pieces at the Military Aviation Museum, Hunt said, waiting to be restored.

The museum also is letting patrons fly in its airplanes -- for a fee. Rides are offered in an open-cockpit 1941 Boeing Stearman and a 1940 North American SNJ-2 for $149 to $429.

Those planes will fill the skies this weekend along with about 20 more World War II-era aircraft, including the museum's Mustang fighter, TBM Avenger bomber and wooden Mosquito fighter-bomber -- the only one left in the world that flies. On the ground, more than 300 re-enactors will attend. And in between, German paratrooper re-enactors will jump out of a German Junkers Ju-52.

Yagen has bought more warbirds since last summer that will be on display, but none of them are airworthy yet, Hunt said. A guest plane -- the world's only privately owned, flight-worthy Avro Lancaster, a British bomber -- will fly down from a Canadian museum to participate.

About a dozen World War II veterans will meet and greet visitors, sharing photographs and stories. Some fought for America, some fought for Germany, some are local and others are flying in for the event, Hunt said.

Promotional materials for the air show tell attendees, "Feel free to arrive by airplane." Hunt said he expects about 25 private craft.

Another expected guest is Jerry Yellin, a World War II pilot who flew 19 missions and was in the air over a Japanese island the day the war ended.

Reached at his home in Iowa this week, Yellin, now 90, said he's planning to make an announcement at the air show about a nationwide celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. On the same weekend in 2015, he hopes warbirds across the country will fly and remind people why his generation fought the war, and why they should support the museums that help us remember.

"We were a nation united," Yellin said. "We want young people to understand what we fought for."

Elisabeth Hulette, 757-222-5097, elisabeth.hulette@pilotonline.com

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