Where It’s Veterans Day Every Day

Only one day is marked on the calendar to honor the men and women who have defended our country. But at the Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana, Ohio, every day is Veterans Day.

Champaign Aviation Museum, Urbana, Ohio

Guests view planes during the Champaign Aviation Museum's open house on Saturday. The Champaign Lady B-17 can be seen in the background.

World War II B-17 vets often stop by to check progress of the museum’s project to rebuild a B-17 Flying Fortress—the Champaign Lady—to flying status. In its fifth year, the volunteer effort recently moved from Hangar 9 on the south end of Grimes Field to the museum, on the airport’s north end. It shares the space with other vintage aircraft.

When B-17 veterans arrive they get a hero’s welcome. Photos of the veterans decorate the work area. And work stops as the volunteers take in the veterans’ recounting of nighttime raids over Nazi Germany, of their riddled planes lumbering back to base.

The B-17 restoration and the museum are not just about antique flying machines. Urbana businessman and benefactor Jerry Shiffer started the project—and his family has continued it since his death—as a way to remember the sacrifices made for our freedoms.

Take a moment to visit the museum’s website—in particular a page that features bios of a couple of the many veterans who have visited the Champaign Lady. Stop by the museum, too. You might even get to meet a B-17 crew member, as I did on one visit.

And thank the veterans around you.

My nephew Wes, back from Iraq.

My nephew Mark, in Afghanistan.

I take this opportunity to honor the memory of my father-in-law, Kenneth Markley, who served in the Korean War, and my father, James Schenkel, who served in the Pacific Theater in World War II and at the beginning of the occupation of Japan at war’s end.

And a special salute to my nephews, Wes and Mark Poppel: Wes is back at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., after a tour in Iraq, and Mark, with the Ohio Air National Guard, is back from Afghanistan.

Click here to view a brochure that I and graphic designer Melinda Thackery created for the Champaign Aviation Museum.

Urbana, Ohio, Fly-in Features B-17 Heroes

As you’d probably expect, the Mid-Eastern Regional Fly-in (MERFI)—September 11 and 12 at Grimes Field in Urbana, Ohio—will feature airplanes.  In fact, lots of airplanes. About 350 experimental aircraft in all!MERFI in Urbana, Ohio

But it’s not all about flying machines.

Among the stars of the show are flesh and blood heroes. As young men, they put their lives on the line for our freedom. Just a thin skin of aluminum and skeletal framework separated them from mortal injury.

Our time to hear their stories firsthand is ticking.   So, don’t miss the opportunity to meet six of these brave members of the “Greatest Generation”—all of them B-17 crew members—at MERFI.

They’ll share their experiences and answer your questions at 2 p.m. Saturday, September 11 in the conference room of the Champaign Aviation Museum at Grimes Field.

B-17 veteran Art Kemp to speak at MERFI in Urbana, Ohio

Art Kemp points out the section of the B-17 with which he's most familiar. He's one of six B-17 veterans who will speak about their experiences in World War II at the Mid-Eastern Regional Fly-in at Grimes Field in Urbana, Ohio.

Also at MERFI, you can check progress on restoration of the Champaign Lady B-17G at the airport. It’ll help you picture where the veterans were stationed in combat. Restoration of the aircraft’s ball turret, a cramped Plexiglas® sphere where a gunner sat, slung from the belly of the plane, is now about 75 percent complete.

Since the restoration began in 2005, nearly 80 B-17 veterans have stopped by Grimes Field to check on the project and amaze the volunteers with accounts of their missions.

Decorated Hero

Early on I had the pleasure to meet and interview Art Kemp of Bellefontaine, Ohio, a tail gunner who flew in 35 missions against the Nazis from June 21, 1944, to February 1, 1945. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross on July 28, 1944, after his group dropped its bomb load on an oil refinery in Merseburg, Germany, and came under attack by German fighters.

Two gunners in his crew were killed, a hole was ripped in the bottom of the plane, both wings were badly shot up, and two of the four engines were disabled, and a third leaked oil. But Mr. Kemp shot down two of the attacking fighters, and the plane stayed aloft for the 500-mile flight back to Polebrook, England.

“After we landed, Glenn Miller’s band (at Polebrook to entertain the airmen) came out and looked at our plane. They kept asking us how we got back,” Mr. Kemp remembered.

“If we’d been on a B-24, we wouldn’t have made it back. But B-17s could do that.”

Now he can tell us about it 66 years later.

More About MERFI

Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat., Sept. 11; 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun., Sept. 12

Admission: $5; under 12 free

Featured events:

  • Yankee Warrior, the only B-25 DG combat veteran still flying in the world, will fly in Saturday evening. Rides will be sold during MERFI and flights will take off Sunday
  • Tour the Champaign Aviation Museum, the B-17 restoration project, Grimes Flying Lab Foundation Museum and the Flying Lab Foundation’s second Twin Beech restoration project
  • Ladies for Liberty concert Saturday evening, featuring music in the style of the Andrews Sisters
  • A NASA display
  • A presentation for students by teacher in space Chantelle Rose of Graham High School
  • Kids’ activities including photos in a 1946 Piper J-3 Cub and Douglas C-47
  • Presentation by an FAA safety inspector who served with the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds

For the complete schedule: visit www.merfi.com

History Takes Flight in Urbana, Ohio

Think “museum” and you may picture exhibits frozen in time. Say, a prehistoric winged bug preserved in amber. Captivated by the eerie quiet of its stillness, you imagine how it flew.

But two museums at Grimes Field, Urbana, Ohio’s municipal airport, rev your imagination. They house vintage aircraft that can still take to the air and others that are being restored to fly again—to recall visions of historic exploits.

Restoration of B-17G Champaign Lady in Urbana, Ohio

Many volunteers work tirelessly at Grimes Field to return the Champaign Lady B-17 to the skies. The project will soon move to the Champaign Aviation Museum.

The Grimes Flying Lab Foundation museum features the restored Flying Lab, a modified Beech 18 that was used to test aircraft lighting developed and produced in Urbana by Grimes Manufacturing (now Honeywell Aerospace). The museum preserves the history of the company, which was founded by Warren G. Grimes. This summer Mr. Grimes was posthumously inducted  into the Aviation Hall of Fame, as the father of aircraft lighting and inventor of aircraft navigational instruments. Grimes Field, Mr. Grimes’ gift to the city of Urbana, continues as a living legacy, and the Grimes Flying Lab Foundation museum is a part of the National Aviation Heritage Area, which was created to recognize the Dayton region’s leadership in American aviation history.

A more recent addition to the airport, the Champaign Aviation Museum primarily houses World War II aircraft as well as the world’s only surviving flyable Pitcairn Autogiro, a peculiar cross between airplane and helicopter from the ‘20s.

A B-17G restoration project started five and a half years ago in a hangar on the south end of the airport will be moved into the aviation museum by the end of October. Local business leader and community benefactor Jerry Shiffer initiated the Champaign Lady B-17 project before his passing. His family continues the project with a legion of volunteers, and they built the museum as a tribute to veterans.

With this heightened local interest in aviation history, Grimes Field has become a magnet for special events of flight.  None stands out more than this April’s fly-in by one of the largest, if not the largest, gatherings of B-25s since World War II. Thousands flocked to Urbana to witness the war birds, which dramatically flew into  Grimes Field in support of the Doolittle Raiders’ 68th reunion at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Don’t miss the next big event at Grimes Field: the Mid-Eastern Regional Fly-in, or MERFI, which will bring 350 experimental aircraft, educational programs and displays—along with a chance to see the Grimes Flying Lab,  the Champaign Aviation Museum and the B-17 project—on September 11 and 12.

More on this later…..