Prairie Aviation Museum Going Strong After 40 Years
The row of historic jets facing East Empire Street makes the Prairie Aviation Museum in Bloomington hard to miss. Yet museum president Doug Reeves says he still hears twin cities residents say they have yet to stop in.
Reeves has been president for just over a year, but the longtime pilot remembers when he and a group of aircraft enthusiasts got together in 1982 to purchase and restore a B-25 WWII plane in Springfield. The project fell through, but local members decided to try again in Bloomington with a WWII DC-3 aircraft.
The group built the museum’s current building in 1988 as a workshop for the plane.
“It was never originally thought of as a museum,” said Reeves. “In fact, the original organization was more for the airplane, but people started donating items and artifacts, and they had to have someplace to keep them, so they started fixing this building as a place to keep and preserve them.”
Then in 2005, when the economy began to take a turn for the worse, the group was forced to sell its DC-3 plane.
“We made a hard switch -- the airplane had to be sold, and the museum is what’s left.”
They may not be in the flying business anymore, but PAM and its organizers have since settled into a new role as the area’s greatest resource for local aviation history.
Reeves said while the museum relies entirely on donations, admissions and gift shop sales, PAM is in excellent financial shape. The museum’s attendance is holding steady, hovering around 4,000 since 2013, with 4,188 visitors last year.
Every year PAM welcomes visitors from across the United States, recording guests from 40 states in 2017.
It also continues to record a number of international visitors -- last year visitors from England, Canada, Hungary, Australia, France and others stopped by.
“We have people that come to town to visit businesses or family, or fly into the airport and see our aircraft on display and they just stop in, or we have people that are following the Route 66 trail and they come through,” said Reeves.
Reeves said they strive to welcome anyone interested in aviation despite barriers that may keep them out of other museums.
“Our philosophy here is we want people to see and touch history and be able to actually get up close,” he said. “So many of the museums you go to you have to stand behind a big rope to take a picture. Here we want you to be able to come right up to these aircraft and actually see what we’re talking about.”
Sometimes “close” means climbing right into the cockpit. During its Open Cockpit Days, the museum charges an admission fee to give visitors the chance to look -- and in some cases sit -- inside its planes.
The museum, an American Disabilities Act-compliant facility, gives tours to a variety of visitors, including daycares, homeschool students, scouts, senior citizens and students with disabilities.
Reeves said they’ve also begun to partner with Illinois State University to develop new ways to help visually impaired guests “see” what the museum has to offer, like equipping a Vietnam-era helicopter with audio recordings of the aircraft in action.
PAM is also a special place for veterans,
With funding and attendance going strong, the museum’s greatest need is for additional volunteers.
The museum is 100% volunteer-run; locals with experience flying or maintaining planes donate their time and expertise to help keep PAM going.
Volunteers are in charge of assembling, maintaining and rotating every display in the museum. One cataloged a collection of hundreds of donated model planes to cycle through display cases throughout the year.
Some show their creative side, constructing dioramas to help illustrate aviation history, including a model of the International Space Station.
Others help paint and clean the aircraft, keeping them in display condition for guests.
The volunteers also help preserve the legacies of area veterans, adding to the museum’s display detailing the military service of historic McLean County residents. The museum shares the stories and artifacts it collects with the McLean County Museum of History, including documents for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI.
“We want to document people who were historically important for this area and show that we had an engagement with aviation, even though we didn’t have an aircraft factory or an airport here in town [at the time].”
For those veterans still active in the community, the chance to share their experiences with others is unique to the museum. Reeves said it can be an emotional experience -- with several WWII and Vietnam War-era planes, veterans can see and touch planes just like those they relied on during their military service.
Reeves said while hundreds of aviation museums dot the country, he estimates PAM is the only aviation museum in the immediate area, with the nearest larger museum in St. Louis, Missouri.
“We are probably on the smaller side compared to a lot, but we’re proud of our size and we’re proud of what we have.”
What’s Next: Two new artifacts will be on display at PAM this summer, including a jet engine donated by the U. S. Navy and a Piper J-3 Cub donated by a former pilot in Chicago.