The Air Classics Museum
As luck would have it, last Saturday offered up free admittance to Air Classics Museum in nearby North Aurora, Illinois. Their annual open house just happened to fall on June 14th, the day I was going anyway. I’d previously passed it on the way to somewhere else, and seeing a cluster of WWII through ‘Nam-era fighter aircraft parked outside behind a fence piqued my interest, you betcha.
I think it’s important to approach this museum with an awareness of what it’s about. We, or at least I, associate museums with a group of wealthy industrialists holding a roast beast feast to gather support for assembling a collection, and for a somber, columned structure to house it. The Air Classics Museum is a bunch of former fighter and bomber pilots, plus some penniless aircraft enthusiasts, scrounging up whatever hardware they can gather. Officially, their goal is to “chronicle the critical role of aviation”, “further public appreciation of our aviation heritage” and promote both professional and recreational aviation to the public. Unofficially, I suspect that it’s just a combination of loving to fly and coming to recognize the influence that aircraft have had on world history. This motley hardware collection is the result.
Man has always dreamed of flying like a bird, soaring in the sky with perfect freedom to go anywhere, at any time. Now he can, and we’ve long since begun to take that for granted. Pressure from commercial interests as well as a proven need to regulate aircraft operation for the sake of public safety, has led to the wonder of flight being reduced to slurping coffee on a large aluminum bus that goes long distances very quickly. Our love of litigation as a form of gold mining has long ago ended the production of Piper Cubs and all those small airplanes that encouraged people to learn to fly and go anywhere they wanted, whenever they wanted. Personal choice.
I used to have a book (before a dog destroyed it) which was written by a General, immediately following World War 2. In it, he realized the potential of small aircraft and envisioned our future as highways in the sky and some kind of helicopter, autogyro, or airplane in every garage. It wouldn’t matter where you lived any more, or how far from the congested, claustrophobic city you were. The decade following World War Two was a time of promise and potential, among other things. Anything seemed possible. All you had to do was do it, create it, carry it out.
True, this sense of potential was soon dampened by the two sworn enemies of personal freedom in the U.S.: Soviet Russia and U.S. Legislators. The legislators were (and are) trying to look productive and raise reelection funds for their next ride on the gravy train. So, they legislate. It’s “for our children”.
I don’t think I’m overstating things quite as much as you assume I am. It’s the year 1900. Want to build yourself a four-wheeled, self-propelled conveyance – popularly known as a horseless carriage? Then get yourself some parts and build it, hit the road, and go. If it works well, then maybe you can sell it and make another. Do that.
It’s 1950. Want to build yourself the same four-wheeled, self-propelled conveyance? Add some safety-related equipment, convince the local DMV that you didn’t steal the parts that went into the car, climb in, and go. You can manufacture them, if you can raise the cash to start production and find someone interested in selling it. Not all that much changed, as far as legal hurdles go.
It’s today. You can still build your four-wheeled conveyance, just as before! Just keep all the parts receipts, post a bond for much more than the value of the vehicle, and let the DMV inspector see if he agrees with your design approach and execution. If he approves, you can drive it. But the odds are that you are now required to pass your state exhaust emissions tests, which can’t be done with a gasoline-powered vehicle unless you’ve incorporated a complete powertrain from a current vehicle, including wiring, sensors and electronics. Bummer. You can sell it to someone, but you can’t pull a Henry Ford without earning certification for Federal emissions testing, and then building several cars, so you can plow them into walls for Federal crash testing certification. Actively maintain average Federal fuel mileage standards for whatever you produce, or there’ll be hell to pay. And keep some lawyers on hand to deal with lawsuits. Only one new homegrown, independent car brand comes to mind in the last half-century, the dream of a millionaire who very nearly lost his shirt in the process. And his car was electric-powered, not gasoline.
There were once hundreds of automobile brands in the United States between 1890 and 1920. I forget the number, but I think it’s well over 400. Market forces took nearly all of them out as failed startups. There’s a big financial gulf between building and manufacturing, and many a venture capitalist saw the stunning opportunities to cash in on the hottest new fad to come along since the railroads. They talked inventors and engineers into taking their babies into production. A few engineers were trying out new ideas, but most of the combined forces were simply picking out prefab parts from catalogs and assembling them to their liking, with custom features. Popular as they were though, horseless carriages were still a rich man’s expensive hobby, and that market was only so big. The high prices and abysmal reliability killed off the ill-fated remainder. What you see in antique auto museums today is only the tiniest fraction of what once existed, boiled down to a few of the ones that “made it” into sustained mass production.
Ransom Olds’ and then Henry Ford’s obsession with streamlining production helped bring the motor car into the mainstream. Durand’s obsession with building a corporate juggernaut (General Motors) led him to buy out some bigger players and create new brands that purchased rights to the names of well-known auto racing figures (Chevrolet). Durand became the John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates of his day, playing dirty tricks to drive competitors out of business, lying to Federal judges, and bribing legislators to prevent the entry of new ones, like Tucker. In the automotive field, GM’s antics are no longer needed. The Land of Opportunity is largely gone, having submerged into the Great Sea of Legislation. If you’re still using the concept of owning a convenience store as a shining example of Opportunity and Freedom in America, it’s time to take a glance back to what it used to mean. It used to mean that all you had to worry about was your competition. Nowadays, it’s your own government that hopes to strangle your dream.
Speaking from ignorance, aircraft may actually be a slightly easier go – there are no fuel, mileage, crash or emissions hoops to jump through. You can build and certify your own aircraft – from a kit. I assume that the hoops for manufacturing center on certifying every component on the thing for strength, reliability and performance, a task that must absorb money like a gold digger in heat. That, and your defense lawyer.
Where does the regulation stop? Hard to say. The town I used to live in, Woodstock Illinois, in the last few years greeted a couple of children running a lemonade stand in front of their house with a verbal Cease and Desist under threat of a citation. It seems that they were running afoul of the license and approval now required for food vending within the city. Opportunity, indeed. The lesson this teaches those kids is not to go ahead and get started in enterprise and capitalism, but that in order to make their dream come true, they’ll probably need to put more of their future efforts into finding ways to evade their own government’s efforts to stop them.
But, enough of delusional musings. Back to the museum. For a group of just plain folks, overcoming the big problems associated with acquiring full-scale military aircraft and somehow teleporting them to a small corner of a small airport is pretty darned impressive. You can’t just hoist an airplane onto a flatbed trailer and head for North Aurora Municipal Airport. There’re no big sponsors, big bankrolls or big equipment to work with here. It’s not the Sprint Cellular Air Classics Museum. It’s just a bunch of guys who love airplanes.
The result resembles kind of a cross between a little fenced-in shrine, and a small-scale aircraft graveyard where the parts hopefully go on instead of come off. It’s a test of will against a vast host of manpower, logistical, legal and financial challenges. And, it’s still working and in operation. I find that impressive, and almost invigorating.