Michigan museum founder added to aviation hall of fame
YPSILANTI, Mich. (AP) — Staring at the tail section of a World War II-era bomber, his head is in the clouds.
Dennis Norton, co-founder of the Yankee Air Museum at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, imagines the chaos young men experienced flying bombing raids in clunky bombers over Europe while Nazi pilots hunted them in the sky.
He envisions men and women — his mother among them — back home in the noisy Ford-operated Willow Run bomber plant, stamping steel and shooting rivets into sheet metal around the clock as they assembled the B-24 bomber, what is considered one of the most destructive aircraft flown by the Allies during their battle against Adolph Hitler.
“If it hadn’t been for the Willow Run bomber plant and building almost 9,000 B-24 bombers, we would have had a very difficult time winning World War II,” Norton told The Ann Arbor News , “because we needed the long-range bombers that were built here to defeat Germany.”
Most of the old 5 million-square-foot plant — except for a small section Norton plans to convert for future use by the Yankee Air Museum — is no longer standing. Norton said General Motors Corp. last owned the former bomber plant and had occupied it since the 1950s.
“We’ve managed to save about 3 percent of the original bomber plant,” Norton said.
While contemplating the past, Norton simultaneously evaluates his own legacy, something he partially solidified in April with his induction into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame.
The selection was thanks to Norton’s nearly 40-year effort to preserve the Michigan’s bomber plant history while capturing the attention of area students, some of whom he expects to pursue careers in aerospace or become pilots.
“It was very unexpected,” Norton said. “Recognition of what I did to start this and save this history was tremendous, just made me feel so good that they’re recognizing something that will far outweigh me.
“A hundred years from now, nobody will remember me, but it will be here.”
Norton took his first flight at Willow Run Airport as a child with his “history-buff” father, who learned to fly while in the U.S. Navy conducting missions in the Pacific Ocean theater during WWII. He’s been consumed by flight — and history — ever since.
Norton, a pilot himself, spent his career working as an entrepreneur and developer, but always returned to his favorite “hobby” in his free time — aviation.
Speaking with a pilot friend in 1981, he said, he shared his idea of turning a portion of Willow Run Airport into an aviation museum celebrating flight and the history of the bomber plant. Nine people attended the first planning meeting.
“We’re on a roll (we thought), so we started the museum, and I became the first president and member number one,” Norton said. “We started raising money and getting aircraft and telling stories. I guess the rest, as they say, is history.”
Despite a fire that wiped out the museum a decade ago, the Yankee Air Museum rebuilt. Norton estimates the museum is visited by nearly 150,000 people annually.
While touring the future museum, Norton’s eyes spanned the 200,000-square-foot, concrete-floored hangar of the former bomber plant located a football field’s distance from the current museum, a warehouse and office section of Willow Run Airport.
What remains of the one-time Ford plant refitted for war production in the 1940s is mostly empty, except for a few military aircraft and a lift boom.
But Norton, with the help of nearly $15 million he plans to collect through private donations over the next decade, hopes the space with dirt floors will reopen as the new Yankee Air Museum.
“We’ll be living in our biggest artifact,” he said.
Information from: The Ann Arbor News, http://www.mlive.com/ann-arbor