Tuskegee Airmen exhibit coming to Chanute museum

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 will also tentatively fly in on Sunday.

Hanson said availability of the F-5 variant depends on completion of repairs on the aircraft.

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 weekdays), 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.

P-51C Mustang history

The P-51C Mustang that will be flown to Rantoul for the Red Tail exhibit at Chanute Air Museum is one of 1,750 built.

In late 1942, the British and U.S. succssfully tested the Rolls Royce Merlin V-12 installed in a P-51.

Because the North American Aircraft plant in Inglewood, Calif., would be at full capacity building the P-51B, the company decided to expand its plant in Dallas to build more P-51B's. The B models built in Dallas were redesignated P-51C.

They had the first Packard-built Rolls Royce Merlin engines.

Later, the more-powerful V-1650-Merlin was introduced in the P-51C-5NT.

The P-51H Mustang like the one restored at the Chanute Air Museum never saw action during World War II.

In July 1943, the U.S. Army approved a contract with North American Aviation to design and build a lightweight P-51. Designated NA-105, five aircraft were to be built and tested.

Edgar Schmued, chief of design at NAA, visited England early in 1943. British fighters were lighter than U.S. fighters.

Schmued asked for detailed weight statements from the Supermarine factory on the Spitfire. He wanted to know why the Spitfires were so much lighter than the P-51.

Supermarine did not have such data on the Spitfire, so the process began of weighing all the parts they could get hold of, and a report was made for Schmued.

When Schmued returned, they began a new design of the P-51 Mustang that used British design loads. They shaved weight on any part that could yield and were able to reduce the weight of the P-51 by 600 pounds.

A number of changes were made for the H compared to the first P-51 — from the wing to landing gear ammo doors.

The fuselage skins were lighter and thinner, made from a new alloy. The cockpit panel was improved and simplified.

Even though some units in the Pacific received the P-51H before VJ Day, they did not see any action. When the Korean War broke out, the earlier version of the P-51, the P-51D, was chosen to do the fighting, not the P-51H. The H was used in later years in many Air National Guard units around the U.S.

Only five P-51Hs survived — two of which are on display, two airworthy and one in restoration to be airworthy.

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