Bloomington Museum Marks 40th Year of Preserving Aviation History

May 17, 2024
The museum's all-volunteer crew maintains a growing number of mostly complete aircraft, fuselage sections, engine units, and a variety of aviation memorabilia. Currently, 15 planes or cockpit pieces dot the airpark grounds behind the museum.

May 15—BLOOMINGTON — This summer, Bloomington's Prairie Aviation Museum will be coasting into its 40th year of preserving and displaying aviation history.

The museum's all-volunteer crew maintains a growing number of mostly complete aircraft, fuselage sections, engine units, and a variety of aviation memorabilia. Currently, 15 planes or cockpit pieces dot the airpark grounds behind the museum, which is at 2929 E. Empire Drive, Bloomington.

Around 20 were expected to pitch in on grounds and exhibit upkeep duties for a Wednesday volunteer work session, in advance of the museum's open cockpit sessions starting this Saturday.

The open cockpit days offer people of all ages the chance to enter and touch firsthand a piece of aviation history. The museum's airpark includes both military and civilian craft; some of the military planes are owned by the federal government, and the museum personally owns a few of its own.

Tom Kuhn, president of the museum's board, said he's amazed by the museum's growth over the years, considering it's an all-volunteer organization.

"We're not very big, and maybe that's a good reason, because now we can concentrate on making it a better museum instead of a bigger one," Kuhn said.

Kuhn, who served in the U.S. Air Force, said it's a lot of fun to see people looking at their airplanes and getting excited. He said they've had service members jot down a plane's tail number and check their service log books to learn, "sure enough, he flew in the rear seat in our F-4."

Visitor reactions do vary. Bloomington's John Eckley, museum volunteer and board member, said the Bell UH-1 Iroquois Huey helicopter receives the most emotional response of all their craft.

"Mostly (it) was for hauling troops... it was a true hauler, in and out of hot spots in Vietnam," Eckley said, adding that museum volunteers have seen Vietnam War veterans sit down and cry at the sight of it.

"(We've) had some that wouldn't even approach the aircraft," Kuhn said.

Eckley said veterans have told him if it weren't for that helicopter model, they wouldn't have made it back home.

Getting the Scoop

Eckley, 68, said he volunteers for the museum in honor of his grandfather's aviation career. His grandfather, Ralph B. Eckley, was posthumously inducted in the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame in 1994, and had befriended and flown with Charles Lindbergh.

In the 1920s, Ralph Eckley sold aircraft to The Pantagraph for aerial photography and delivery support, his grandson said. In a reader contest, the newspaper named each of its planes "Scoop."

The museum's founding began sputtering into gear in May 1982. Early that month, founder Norman "Norm" Wingler, then of Bloomington, told The Pantagraph that as a coordinator of the Bloomington- Normal chapter of Heritage In Flight, they were seeking new members and financial support to purchase and restore a 1930s DC-3 airplane.

About a year and a half before a Twin Cities chapter was started, Gerald Oliver Jr. founded a Springfield chapter, and by 1987, Heritage In Flight would begin furnishing its own aviation museum at the Logan County Airport in Lincoln.

The interest in establishing the Bloomington museum later grew to more than 50 people by the end of 1982, according to PAM's history webpage, as pizza-making fundraisers commenced. Wingler, who served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s, would become PAM's first president; other founding officers included John Percy, Bill Baird and Paul Baker.

The Bloomington branch of Heritage In Flight, then named the Gooney Bird Chapter, chose to split off from its Springfield parent organization in 1983, PAM's website stated. As of Aug. 1, 1984, the Gooney Bird Chapter had been dissolved and the Prairie Aviation Museum was formally incorporated by the State of Illinois.

Over the years, PAM has propelled itself far toward fulfilling its mission of educating, entertaining and inspiring through the collection, preservation and presentation of aircraft and aviation artifacts. Since 1992, Eckley said museum has recorded 113,852 visitors to the museum. The years of 2005-2010 were the museum's busiest, with about 6,000 people attending annually.

Eckley said the museum later sold the DC-3 for financial reasons, and now the museum's collection is mostly static. The museum plans to tow its Hughes 269A helicopter, which was used for training in the U.S. Army, in this year's Memorial Day parade in Bloomington and Towanda's July 4 parade.

Jim Ondeck, of rural Bloomington, recently donated a B-57 cockpit section to the museum. He said he plans to haul it on Memorial Day in Bloomington, and possibly at more area parades.

Inside the museum are at least two cutaway engine displays. One, which features an interactive cranking mechanism, is a 1916 Frederickson Model 5A radial-rotary engine that was built in Bloomington and used as a test model to prepare for World War I.

The museum also invites student groups for tours.

"The adults (that are chaperoning) come and have just as much fun as the students," Eckley said.

"We do it to watch the smiles on the people's faces, and we have lots and lots of smiles," he said of what inspires their volunteers.

"Band of brothers"

Part of what calls the volunteers to help the museum is giving back to the community, Eckley said. Another aspect, he added, is the sense of comradery they share.

Tyler Phifer, 19, of Bloomington, said he and his friends got into aviation during the pandemic. He said they'd been playing flight simulator video games, so he looked into Bloomington's aviation museum.

After graduating from Normal Community High School next week, Phifer said he plans to attend the MIAT College of Technology in Michigan to study aviation maintenance. He said the museum was a good place to try out that kind of work and has provided him a good beginning in the field.

Having a background in aviation is not a prerequisite for volunteering at the PAM — you only need be interested in aviation. Phifer said he's been volunteering at the museum for almost a year.

"It's always a blast," Phifer said. He said he likes getting up close and personal with the aircraft on painting and cleaning tasks, especially since the Huey was flown in Vietnam.

Another volunteer helping prep the site Wednesday was Gary Fillingham. He said he wants to preserve the dignity of the aircraft as "a tribute to the veterans."

Fillingham said volunteering at the museum helps him relieve stress. And, it's great to see kids' faces light up when they touch the planes.

He said he's been volunteering at the museum for at least five years. Fillingham has felt the comradery, too.

"The guys that work out here (are) just like a band of brothers," he said, adding they have volunteers who severed in several U.S. military branches, including some who know the planes very well.

Fillingham took up landscaping tasks Wednesday. He said he's also serviced the museum's Convair 880 flight simulation cockpit yoke and has been helping to get the Huey looking just like it was flown by the 187th Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam.

Having served in the Army National Guard, he said keeping the Huey in order is important to him.

"I rode in that several times," Fillingham said.

Open cockpit days

Open cockpit days at the Prairie Aviation Museum will be held on the following dates:

— May 18

— June 15

— July 20

— Aug. 17

— Sept. 31

Adults and children above age 6 are charged $5. Kids ages 5 and under get in free. Open cockpit hours start at 10 a.m. and run through museum close.

The museum is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. through October. Annual membership fees are $30 for individuals or $60 for a family membership.

In addition to volunteering or registering for membership, you can also support the museum by sponsoring a display. For more information, go to

Contact Brendan Denison at (309) 820-3238. Follow Brendan Denison on Twitter: @BrendanDenison


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