Pearl Harbor aviation museum's ex-director kept an eye on steady growth
By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: January 1, 2018
HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — Walking through the Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor’s cavernous Hangar 79, Ken DeHoff, who just retired as executive director for operations, had a great story for just about every plane he passed.
On Feb. 22, 1942, the museum’s B-17E, along with four other Flying Fortresses, took off from Townsville, Australia, to attack Japanese ships in New Britain in the first American heavy bomber raid of World War II.
On its first and last combat mission, and before crash-landing in a swamp in New Guinea, a door popped open and out came a big rubber life raft that inflated and promptly lodged on the bomber’s horizontal stabilizer, DeHoff said.
The waist gunner, manning a .50-caliber machine gun, “called the captain and said, ‘Captain, we’ve got a life raft wrapped around our stabilizer.’ The captain says, ‘Shoot it off,’” DeHoff said.
He did, and the bullet holes through the structure are clearly visible.
DeHoff described how the museum in 2012 towed a C-47/DC-3 cargo plane, backward, down Lagoon Drive from Honolulu airport to the museum on Ford Island, a 45-minute trip.
A General Dynamics F-111C fighter-bomber came courtesy of the Royal Australian Air Force, which repainted it for the museum in Vietnam camouflage.
DeHoff remembered fretting about transporting the aircraft to Hawaii. But, “They said, ‘No, no, you don’t understand. We’re giving it to you (and) we’re bringing it to you,’” he said.
They did, in C-17 cargo carriers. And then reassembled it for the museum. The Aussies liked to knock off early in the afternoon to hit the beach or golf. “I don’t think there was a can of beer left after the two weeks that they were here,” DeHoff joked.
In the 10 years that DeHoff was executive director, the nonprofit Ford Island museum’s aircraft inventory grew to 44 from nine, its visitation to 275,000 from 96,000 annually.
DeHoff, 69, who lives in Hawaii Kai, officially stepped down Dec. 31. Elissa Lines, who came aboard in 2013 as executive director for development, takes over the consolidated role.
“Ken’s tenure can be characterized by one word: success,” said museum board Chairman Clint Churchill in the most recent museum newsletter. “By any measure, the museum’s growth and the respect gained in both the local community and nationally is remarkable.”
Churchill noted that revenue from operations in 2007 was $2.5 million. “2017 revenue will likely exceed $6.6 million, easily covering all expenses from both our operating and property funds,” Churchill said.
Burl Burlingame, the museum’s historian, said in the newsletter that for the past decade DeHoff’s combination of “benign dictatorship” and team-building helped the museum weather lean and fat years and add to its collection.
Contemplating his retirement, DeHoff said, “I’ve got emotions on both sides. I’m absolutely honored to have been here.”
Before joining the museum, DeHoff had more than 20 years’ experience in technology design and business management. He was an associate partner with strategy and consulting firm Accenture and led Carlson Technology Group, an architectural and construction company.
He also flew more than 1,000 combat hours in Cobra attack helicopters in Vietnam, and was shot down several times, including over the Mekong Delta on March 21, 1971, while providing support to Schofield Barracks soldiers on the ground. He went down in a fiery crash and broke his back but was still able to help his dazed co-pilot out of the cockpit while rockets in pods on the chopper “cooked off” in the fire and shot out of their tubes.
At the museum, DeHoff spearheaded the $4.2 million effort to save the iconic orange-and-white Ford Island control tower from rust and corrosion. When contractors peeled back cladding on the crow’s nest at the top, five of eight I-beams forming its backbone were found to have rusted nearly to the breaking point.
He also successfully battled the Navy in 2012 over its plan to install photovoltaic panels on Ford Island’s historic Luke Field, which was established by the Army in 1919 as one of the first military airfields and was at ground zero during the Pearl Harbor attacks.
A petition was launched at change.org that garnered the support of former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak, also a former commander in chief of Pacific Air Forces.
The museum operates out of Hangars 37 and 79 and someday expects to receive 54 from the Navy. A long-held goal is to be able to take visitors to the top of the 158-foot riveted steel control tower.
On the walk through the 86,000-square-foot Hangar 79, DeHoff emphasized the rare history that’s there to see, often in an unrestored state.
In 2016 the museum unveiled several large sections of a Japanese Nakajima B5N “Kate” — the type of bomber that delivered the death knell to the USS Arizona from a 1,760-pound armor-piercing bomb dropped from high altitude.
It is one of just a few known to have survived the war, and a magnesium/aluminum wing section still reveals the faded red “hinomaru” sun emblem that Americans dubbed the “meatball.”
“When you think about museums being places that you actually get to see history, this is authentic,” DeHoff said of the B5N. “This is not replicated. This isn’t a look-alike. This is the real thing, and that’s what’s so powerful about this museum.”
DeHoff also showed off the museum’s new TBM Avenger, the type of torpedo bomber flown by President George H.W. Bush. It had a torpedo bay and was the largest single-engine aircraft of the war.
“This is one of the aircraft I’d love to be able to restore the engine on,” DeHoff said.
He still might be able to have a hands-on role with that.
“Even though I’m going to retire, I’m still going to come back and work in the restoration shop,” he said.
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