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Colorado Springs' WWII aviation museum gets congressional honor

Frank Royal, a 101-year-old veteran, knew the plane he flew during WWII was scrapped and left in the jungles of New Guinea. He never thought he'd see it again — until a restoration campaign reunited the veteran with his beloved P-38 Lightning.

VIA NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WWII AVIATION/FACEBOOK

By MARK K. MATTHEWS | The Denver Post | Published: January 7, 2018

WASHINGTON — The team at the National Museum of World War II Aviation is no stranger to projects that can drag on — one rare airplane at the Colorado Springs facility took about 15 years to transform from wreck to relic.

Even so, its leaders were pumped in December to learn that, after seven years of failed attempts, Congress finally recognized as national caliber their collection of 3,000-plus artifacts and working World War II airplanes they have put on display in hangars at the Colorado Springs Airport.

“Will we frame it? Hell, yeah,” said Mark Earle, a museum board member, of the designation.

Federal lawmakers bestowed the honor on the museum as part of a defense measure that President Donald Trump signed Dec. 12.

The title doesn’t come with any money, nor does the 80-word provision in the National Defense Authorization Act add the facility to the National Park System.

But the new label gives the museum plenty of added cachet that can be used to solicit private donations or entry into groups such as the American Alliance of Museums or the Smithsonian network.

“It helps to validate all the work that we’ve done to date, and it tells people that we’re on the right track. And it creates a real solid foundation for development in the future,” Earle said.

The recognition is the latest milestone for a facility that is relatively young by museum standards — it opened 2012 near the shared runways of the Colorado Springs Airport and Peterson Air Force Base.

“I’ve been there a number of times,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, who first introduced legislation to honor the museum in 2010 — before it even opened. “I’ve always been impressed with the quality of how they do their operations.”

Its claim to fame is a fleet of more than two dozen World War II aircraft, many of which still can fly.

As a companion to these displays, the museum tells the tale of how U.S. industry made huge leaps in aircraft development through the feedback loop of front-line fighting and home-front production.

“That particular era represented an incredible advance in flying technology because the demands of wartime meant that the airplanes had to have much greater capability,” said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. “You can see the evidence of that in the earliest airplane that’s in there to the final airplane.”

The Colorado Democrat, along with Lamborn and Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, pushed to get congressional recognition for the museum.

Added Bennet: The place “blew me away. This is on the quality of the stuff you see in the Smithsonian, except that (the exhibits) fly.”

The jewel of the collection is a Lockheed P-38 that excavators recovered from an airplane graveyard in New Guinea, where a number of aircraft were discarded after the U.S. campaign in the Pacific theater.

The P-38 was rebuilt by mechanics at Westpac Restorations, a premier aircraft repair shop that’s located on the museum campus.

The job wasn’t easy.

The P-38 was pulled from an airplane graveyard in the late 1990s, and it took about 15 years to get it flying again — with much of that time spent trying to get the wreck stateside and finding the right pieces to make it whole.

“We were able to save 45 percent of the original (aircraft), which is phenomenal if you see pictures of this thing when it came out,” said Bill Klaers, co-chair of the museum board and president of Westpac Restorations.

What sets the aircraft apart, he added, is its combat experience. Unlike a lot of vintage planes still flying, Klaers said, this specific P-38 F Lightning saw action — and was flown by World War II ace Kenneth Sparks.

“It’s not just a P-38,” Klaers said. “Knowing it was a combat veteran and you can associate people to it … that’s what the difference is.”

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