After a long struggle and many years of valiant effort in preserving American aviation history, the Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum in Rantoul, Illinois is sadly set to close at the end of this year due to lack of funds. Now comes the hardest part; deciding what to do with the fleet of thirty or so aircraft currently under their care? Nearly all of them still belong to the US Air Force Museum Program, so the move forwards will be a complicated process as there is a mountain of bureaucracy to hurdle in order to qualify for loan of an airframe, not to mention the expense involved in moving it.
As a way of preserving some of their military heritage on site, the village of Rantoul had asked to keep three aircraft on display: an AT-6 Texan, F-86 Sabre and a P-51H Mustang. The H-model Mustang is a real rarity, being one of just a handful of survivors, and it has a special place in Rantoul having been restored there over the course of a decade by a dedicated crew of volunteers led by Curt Arseneau and Norman Meyers. However, the Air Force has turned down Rantoul’s request, and is now sending the P-51H to the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, Georgia. While the Texan will be heading to another museum, unfortunately the F-86 may end up being scrapped as it apparently has radium contamination in its belly.
Warner Robins is set to receive a real gem in the P-51H. According to the Chanute Museum, “The Mustang at the Chanute Air Museum is a P-51H-5-NA, the 105th produced out of 555 ‘H’ models built at the North American Aviation plant at Inglewood, California. It rolled off the assembly line in March of 1945. It’s North American Aviation production number was 126-35691, while the Army Air Force Serial number assigned was 44-64265. This aircraft was a part of USAAF order AC-1752 placed on June 30, 1944. One of only six P-51H airframes existing in the world, ours is the only P-51H on display in a museum setting for visitors to see close up.”
The Mustang had been on outdoor display at the former Chanute Air Force Base for decades, and had been in real decline until the museum took on its restoration beginning in 2003. According to Chanute, “Museum volunteer and Mustang enthusiast Norman Meyers ‘adopted’ the Mustang and founded the Mustang Restoration Project on October 1st, 2003 to take action to preserve and restore the P-51H for our visitors to enjoy. Working totally from donations and from their own pockets, Norm and a small team of volunteers have completed the static restoration of the Mustang to bring it to its current appearance. Completed in the summer of 2013, over 6,000 man hours were expended on the restoration, and another 4,000 hours spent on research and parts acquisitions.”
It must be a sad day for those involved in the restoration to let the Mustang go, but the aircraft is heading to a good home at least, and will probably be enjoyed by much larger crowds at the new location.
As for what will happen to the other aircraft currently on display at the Octave Chanute Aerospace Museum, the future is unclear. Many of the airframes are massive and present huge logistical challenges to move, not to mention the enormous financial commitment in doing so. For behemoths such as the C-133 Cargomaster and KC-97 Stratofreighter, the horizon seems pretty bleak, unfortunately. Rarities like the B-58A Hustler, XB-47 Stratojet and WV-2 Warning Star will probably find new homes, but time will tell.