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Rantoul air museum worth the visit

Mark Hanson, curator of the Chanute Air Museum, looks over a P-51H Mustang, which is currently being restored at the museum’s hangar, on Dec. 12 in Rantoul.
Mark Hanson, curator of the Chanute Air Museum, looks over a P-51H Mustang, which is currently being restored at the museum’s hangar, on Dec. 12 in Rantoul.

RANTOUL – It’s almost back to its glory, the yellow-painted classic fighter modeled on ones a World War II ace used to fly.

The P-51H Mustang, being restored in honor of Louisiana’s Lt. Col. Claude Crenshaw, is “the belle of the ball” at the newly revived Chanute Air Museum in Rantoul, said curator Mark Hanson.

The elegant and deadly 1945 model’s restoration will be finished soon after years of work. Some minor paint work will have to wait for spring.

Along with a new, modular timeline that won’t be damaged if walls get wet in the leaky building, a “Dream of Flight” exhibit featuring Leonardo da Vinci courtesy of Rantoul’s Taylor Studios and some classic simulators with a lot of help from Frasca Aviation, it’s another sign of the museum’s recent renaissance.

Nancy Kobel, president of the museum’s governing board, was staffing the ticket center on a recent weekday.

“We’re on the upswing,” she said. “We’ve learned how to get more done by using our money efficiently.”

It doesn’t get cheaper than free, so there are plenty of volunteers, including two restoration buffs.

Norm Meyers, aka “Mustanger,” said “the restoration effort is actually nearing completion. We are doing some final touches, but will have to wait until spring before we can complete some remaining exterior paint work,” he said.

The yellow nose and “Louisiana Heatwave” logo match one of Crenshaw’s P51Ds before he started flying P51Hs after the war.

The restoration done by Meyers and Curt Arseneau of Champaign began Oct. 1, 2003, on the plane, which is on loan indefinitely from the Air Force Museum, Hanson said.

The bright paint matches that carried on two P-51Ds Crenshaw flew in the 369th Fighter Squadron/359th Fighter Group in the fall and winter of 1944, Arseneau and Meyers said.

During his tour, Crenshaw became an ace with seven air victories and 3.3 ground victories, the restorers said.

All of the funding for the restoration has been from donations to the project via the website or by Meyers’ employer, Best Buy, which offers donations for community volunteer service.

“So the museum hasn’t had to pay anything for the restoration,” Arseneau said. “We have spent a little bit of our own money, but not lately since volunteers stepped up.”

It was labor, not much material, that was most in need.

“Curt and I have put in approximately 4,500 man-hours in the shop and probably another 2,000 hours doing online and other research,” Meyers said. “In that time, we have spent just under $9,000 on the restoration, and half of that was spent just on the canopy, windshields and exterior paint.”

That includes Meyers’ eye for super shopping finds.

While looking for plastic lenses for the wingtip lights, “instead of spending a couple of hundred [dollars] for custom molded units, I found a plastic wine carafe with the right shape and cut and fabricated our own for about two bucks,” he said.

Arseneau said his reward for three years of work is “getting into the museum free any time I want to, and getting to put my hands on that historic machine.”

He said the P51 was the fastest piston engine airplane on the American side.

The H model was lighter and more powerful than the ones Crenshaw flew in his battles with German aces, Arseneau said.

“This model was about 50 mph faster and 600 pounds lighter, a complete redesign from the original,” he said. “You could climb faster and turn tighter with added horsepower from the Rolls Royce Merlin engine.”

Crenshaw’s first two air victories came during a mission on Sept. 11, 1944, to Kolleda, Germany.

During an encounter with about 100 ME-109s, Crenshaw shot down two enemy aircraft in his P-51D named Louisiana Heatwave.

After this encounter, he and his wingman strafed an airfield and scored one of his ground victories, the restorers said.

On Nov. 21, 1944, in the vicinity of Merseburg, Crenshaw encountered several large groups of enemy fighters. He shot down five enemy FW-190 fighters.

Back at his air base, mechanics found that only half of his six .50-caliber guns had been functional, the restorers said.

Chanute, the largest aerospace museum in Illinois, has also in recent months spiffed up some of its classic flight simulators, including a full-scale cockpit of the military version of the DC-9.

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