By Jennifer Rice
SUGAR GROVE – Shelf after shelf of precisely positioned model airplanes sit inside enclosed glass cases at the Aurora Air Classics Museum. These painted plastic airplanes are more than just models, and nobody understands that better than the volunteers at the museum.
Each plane comes with a sad story. The museum usually acquires them after the passing of a veteran.
“We get the calls from family members who say, ‘my dad just passed away and he collected these model airplanes. If you don’t want them, we’re just going to have to throw them away,” said Hank Winkler, a retired veteran and volunteer at the museum.
Of course the museum wants them. “These are works of art, but no family member wants them,” he explained. The museum is happy to get those phone calls, but on the other hand, it comes at the expense of a dying veteran.
“We’d rather have the stuff, than have the family destroy stuff they don’t know the value of,” Winkler added.
Winkler spoke during a tour of the Air Classics Museum July 21 to a group of area veterans. For many, it was their first visit to the museum, located in Sugar Grove, on Route 30.
The museum is a small operation, but is by no means short on delivering history on local veterans as well as displaying artifacts like uniforms, pictures, military advertisements and of course, the actual planes themselves.
The three buildings on the grounds that house the museum hold decades and decades of history, with stories like Capt. William Cullerton, a P-51 fighter pilot from Chicago who was shot down and captured. Towards the end of World War II, the prisoners in Cullerton’s prison camp were shot and left for dead.
He was shot point-blank in the stomach. The bullet passed through him, hitting his kidney and liver. When found, he was alive, but barly clinging to life. He lost most of his blood through the bullet wound. He was taken to a hospital and saved by a Jewish doctor.
After returning home and re-joining civilian life, Cullerton made a career as a radio announcer with WGN Radio, hosting the Great Outdoors Show from 1979-99.
Then there was Aurora resident Richard Allen who, as a young pilot, started out flying B-17’s. Winkler remembered that during an open house event, a Batavia resident — who grew up in Germany as a child, asked if Winkler could put him in contact with a pilot who flew missions over Munich.
Winkler introduced the Batavia resident to Allen. Even though Allen was responsible for many bombing missions over Munich, the Batavia resident and he shared a friendly conversation. “He just wanted to meet and talk with Allen. That’s all. And that story is one of the fascinating aspects of volunteering at the museum,” Winkler said.
Volunteers have the best job, Winkler said. “I get to come here every weekend and talk to people from around the world who are interested in what we have to show them,” he explained.
Aside from three buildings of artifacts, outside the museum is where the aircraft collection sits in two rows. They include a TA-4J Skyhawk, Republic F-105 Thunderchief and the Bell UH-1H Huey, seen in the recent Aurora July 4 parade.
“There really is something for everybody here,” Winkler said.
Jennifer Rice’s e-mail address is Jen@foxvalleylabornews.com.