Preserving World War II aviation history is a labor of love
Inside a non-descript blue hangar in Georgetown, silver wings and noses gleam, the smells of motor oil and coffee hang in the air, and World War II history thrums to life, against the steady drumbeat of rain on the metal roof.
Joe Greene, who is a crew chief on C-5 transport planes at Dover Air Force Base, grunts as he struggles to remove the left generator from the Panchito, a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber that is the star of the museum, and which takes up the lion’s share of hangar space.
A handful of other volunteers at the Delaware Aviation Museum putter about on various planes tucked into the hangar around the giant Panchito like Jenga blocks. “Mitchell,” a black stray cat adopted by the museum and named after the Panchito’s manufacturer, nimbly makes his way in and out of the maze of planes and parts.
The director of all of this activity is Larry Kelley, who has landed in this spot after three decades in the pharmaceutical industry. Although Kelley himself is not a military veteran, his fascination with World War II aviation history, in particular, goes back to his childhood.
Kelley was, he said, that kid, growing up in Alabama, who rode his bike down the road to the nearby airstrip and hung out, just to be close the aircraft, and maybe even catch a ride.
“I was the airport rugrat,” he said.
His father was a World War II veteran, having served in the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippines; his uncles were also World War II veterans.
He would go on to graduate from pharmacy school and spent the next three decades working in that field, including a stint at Johns Hopkins, helping to develop new systems for delivery of pharmaceuticals.
But his fascination with World War II aircraft never waned, and over the years, Kelley collected memorabilia and pieces of equipment — lots of it. At his Mardela, Md., home, he built a 30-foot-long cedar closet to hold all of his World War II-vintage uniforms.
“There’s no room left in there for me to add any more,” he said.
He pursued his interest in flight as well, and in 1974 earned his private pilot’s license. In the mid-1980s, he met aviation author Jeff Ethell, who got him interested in the Warbirds organization, which is dedicated to preserving aviation history and aircraft. By the end of that decade, Kelley had bought his first “warbird” — a UC-78 Bobcat that was in such a state of neglect there was a tree growing through it.
The Panchito — Kelley’s largest plane — is one of 32 B-25s still in flying condition. The model was made famous by the raids on Japan led by Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, in which 16 B-25s staged the first foreign attack on Japan in 2,600 years.
The Panchito never saw combat but was used in training missions — which were not without their own dangers, Kelley said. In his tiny office, amid shelves and stacks of memorabilia, he grabs a framed item off his wall, It references “Alabbaba and his 40 Theives” [sic] and lists eight pilots stationed in Deland, Fla. — five of whom were killed in training exercises.
Kelley tells the stories of these pilots with a reverence that is palpable. His eyes frequently redden and he reaches for a tissue, all the while apologizing, with a quick “Sorry — the cold makes my nose run.”
He reaches toward the back of his desk and pulls out a series of small jars.
“Pieces of the Enola Gay runway,” he explains. “Sand from Normandy — flowed red with the blood of our soldiers,” he says. “Oil from the U.S.S. Arizona — how blood-tinged is that oil?” he asks.
The danger involved in wartime aviation strikes Kelley hard.
“Every man still volunteered, understanding that the missions were more important than their own personal lives,” he said.
A trailer behind the Georgetown hangar serves as the temporary home for the Delaware Aviation Museum’s collection, much of which came from Kelley — but it’s far from his entire collection. One of the most prized items is a replica of one of the bombs used in the raid on Japan by the famed Air Force pilot Doolittle. It is covered with signatures of men who have a connection to that operation.
If Kelley learns of a veteran who would like to fly in the Panchito, he will do all he can to make that happen. He has seen the impact it can have on such men, decades after returning from war. Among those he has flown in the Panchito is Dick Cole, now 103 and the last surviving member of Doolittle’s Raiders.
During one of those flights, Kelley recalled, he reached out and touched the elderly veteran’s arm, and said, “Thank you for your service.”
“Don’t thank me,” he recalled the man saying. “We left a lot of friends over there. They’re the ones. They’re the ones that paid the ultimate price, so that we can do this, today.”
Founded in 2004, the Delaware Aviation Museum has outgrown its current facility. Kelley said he hopes to one day have a space that can accommodate all of the aircraft and the memorabilia in a way that allows more people to experience it and learn from it.
Meanwhile, the museum offers those “flight experiences,” which allow veterans to recall their days in the air, and civilians to get a taste of flying a historic “warbird.” The museum also offers several levels of flight training for the historic aircraft, which Kelley said attracts pilots from all over the world. “We are the only flight school for B-25s,” Kelley noted.
Keeping the aircraft flyable is a never-ending challenge, Kelley said.
“We have six planes down for maintenance right now,” he said. A “core group” of about 12 volunteers is in and out of the museum on a daily basis, either working on the planes, like Greene, or helping in other ways, like Jim Mandelblatt, who built the museum’s website and helps wherever he can elsewhere.
Flying the historic planes is extremely expensive, Kelley said. Replacing each tire on the Panchito runs $5,700. Overhauling the engine comes at a cost of $95,000. Fuel costs for a one-hour flight come in at nearly $800; oil consumption at $200 per hour. The “flight experiences” and flight schools help offset those costs somewhat, Kelley said.
The Delaware Aviation Museum is located at 21781 Aviation Avenue in Georgetown. It is open by appointment; donations are welcome. For more information, including videos of pilots recounting their experiences in planes like those showcased at the museum, go to the museum website at www.delawareaviationmuseum.org. For information on tours, etc., call (443) 458-8926.
By Kerin Magill