Visiting exhibit to celebrate Tuskegee Airmen

It’s been nearly 70 years since the end of World War II, yet it can still teach some valuable lessons, according to Mark Hanson, the curator of Chanute Air Museum.

Nearly 1,000 school children will get a lesson in how a group of African American fighter pilots and support personnel — the Tuskegee Airmen — battled discrimination before being allowed to fight for their country.

A flying P-51C Mustang World War II-era fighter will be part of the Commemorative Air Force Red Tail Squadron event set for Sept. 11-15 at the museum.

The exhibit will be among the largest and most significant in the museum’s approximately 20-year history.

Hanson said nearly 600 of the school children will be from Rantoul City Schools.

The Red Tail Squadron event will also include a 53-foot trailer with expandable sides that houses a 160-degree curved movie screen and seating for 30 in a climate-controlled environment. It will show the film “Rise Above,” which focuses on what the Tuskegee Airmen — black pilots and support personnel — had to overcome to be allowed to fly and fight for their country during World War II.

The first unit of the Tuskegee Airmen, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, was formed at Chanute Field to train support personnel before all operations were moved to Tuskegee, Ala.

The black pilots and crewmen were first deployed to Africa and then to Italy, where they distinguished themselves in combat. The airmen would later paint the tails of their fighters red to identify themselves and would become known as “Red Tailed Angels” by the bomber crews they were assigned to protect.

An F-5 variant of the P-51D and an Airlife Medevac helicopter will also tentatively fly in on Saturday.
Hanson said availability of the F-5 variant depends on completion of repairs on the aircraft, and the Medevac’s availability depends on whether it is needed to make life flights.

It won’t be cheap to bring the Red Tail exhibit to Rantoul. Hanson estimated the cost earlier at $15,000. He said the museum should at least break even, and if lucky make some money on the exhibit.

But the primary focus, he said, is educational.

Hanson said it is important for school children to know the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, who faced a great deal of discrimination before being allowed to fly.

“Because this is an education event, very early on we decided we needed to take care of our Rantoul kids first, so we waived admission fees, so St. Malachy and Rantoul schools will come for free.”

He said museum personnel wanted to extend the same benefit for other school children. As a result they will be allowed in at a reduced rate.

School children will also come from Fisher, Thomasboro, Champaign and a home-school group.

“It would be nice (to make money on the exhibit),” Hanson said, “but our primary objective right now is to get as many kids and folks in to experience the Red Tail Squadron (as possible).”

The museum received a grant of $2,500 from the Rantoul Community Foundation to help cover the appearance fee of the Red Tail Squadron.

A grant is also pending from the Illinois Humanities Council to cover another big part of the Red Tail Squadron’s appearance fee.

Members of the public who want to tour the exhibit are advised to wait until after 2:45 p.m. Wednesday-Friday or to visit on Saturday or Sunday.

“The general public is welcome (during the week days), but we can’t guarantee seats in the theater presentation,” Hanson said. “The school presentations will be winding down about 2:45.”

The museum will be open during normal operating hours from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday and Sunday, and extended hours Saturday (9 a.m.-6 p.m.).  

On Saturday, the Rantoul Rotary will sell concessions — the proceeds of which will go back to the museum.

The museum sold raffle tickets for a chance to ride on the P-51C Mustang, and two winners will be announced.

People will also be able to buy rides on the fighter ($2,000 for a 30-minute ride) on Saturday and Sunday.

The pilots who fly the P-51C also have regular jobs and will come to Rantoul as time permits.

Hanson said one pilot will fly the plane into the airport Sunday in Rantoul and then leave. Another pilot will come in the following Friday to fly the plane during the exhibit.

The P-51C Mustang won’t be the only Mustang at the air museum. Restoration has been completed on a P-51H Mustang on display inside the air museum hangar.

Hanson said Norm Meyers and Curt Arseneau, who have been in charge of the decade-long restoration project, will be on hand to speak with museum visitors about the plane.

“Our restoration guys didn’t want to have a big ceremony,” Hanson said.

So, on Saturday and Sunday they will be available to talk with individuals about the plane and the restoration.

“Norm was the project leader,” Hanson said. “He started the project and was the driving force behind the research and the fundraiser, and is an excellent fabricator.

“Norm calls Curt the crew chief. Curt was out engine guy and mechanic, and an excellent technician and researcher.”

Hanson said the pair worked well together and made a great team. He said he would rank them both among some of the foremost experts on the P51H Mustang.

“It was pretty amazing to see,” the curator said. “We had some folks in from the Air Force Museum a couple of years ago, and I was talking to them about the project, and they were very impressed about what Norm and Curt were able to do with very little money and a very spartan machine shop to make parts and pieces.”

Hanson said the Red Tail exhibit is “really shaping up to be a great event.”

“We’ve really been pleased with the interest that Rantoul City Schools have shown and St. Malachy,” he said. “Champaign city schools was one of the early groups ... that were on board. They wanted to have kids here.”

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven non-profit organization designed to educate people about the Tuskegee Airmen. It touches on World War II, general aviation history, different types of airplanes and the modern day.

Categories (2):News, Living


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