ST. PAUL — Around the metro, it can be easy to overlook a passing plane. Look up to the sky on a clear day and it’s not unusual to see a handful of planes catching the light as they arrive and depart from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. But around South Saint Paul’s Fleming Airfield, passing planes aren’t just taking trips through the air, they’re taking trips back in time.
Nestled in among the hangars at the airfield, The Minnesota Wing of the Commemorative Air Force is home to a fleet of pristine aircraft, vehicles and artifacts from the World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War era. For almost 50 years the group has welcomed visitors from across the state and country to experience war-era history up close and personal.
“As the World War II veterans pass away, that history gets farther and farther away from us,” CAFMN Development Officer Amy Lauria said. “I think it’s important that we remember what happened and what they went through and just to be able to share that experience.”
According to the group’s website, about $3,000 has been raised of the $25,000 needed to beautify the museum’s home in Hangar 3 with a fresh coat of paint, a new door and some signage welcoming visitors back in time.
The museum is home to a impressive array exhibits on uniforms, flight equipment, and Women Air Force Service Pilots. Though the obvious gems of the collection are the group’s fleet of six World War II and Vietnam War era aircrafts: one bomber, three training planes and two observation aircrafts.
The planes are more than just mammoth-sized exhibits, they’re functioning machines that offer visitors a historically accurate flight experience. The CAFMN’s Living History Flight Experience gets visitors out of the hangar and into the air with some of the group’s volunteer pilots.
“It’s a totally different flight, especially from an airliner. It doesn’t even compare,” Lauria said. “It’s loud, but it’s amazing to be able to experience that part of history.”
The “Miss Mitchell” is a gleaming metal giant known for its role in turning the tide of World War II in the Pacific arena. During the height of the war, 16 Mitchell bombers attacked Tokyo, Japan, claiming a propaganda victory for the United States’ military. The bomber was donated to the CAFM in the 80s and spent 12 years under restoration before taking visitors to the Minnesota skies.
Lauria said volunteers spend countless hours researching serial numbers and aircraft assignments to give visitors an honest recreation of how the planes looked and felt during wartimes. The effort pays off when World War II veterans visit and are taken back to their memories of the war.
“They’re always so excited, some of them even get a little emotional,” Lauria said. “A lot of them haven’t flown in a World War II aircraft since the war so it brings back a lot of memories for them.”
The museum also serves as a great community space for history buffs who love the swing era. CAFMN hosts a biannual Hangar Dance in the spring and fall that draws hundreds of people for swing dancing, costume contests, aircraft and vehicle tours and samplings of local beers and food trucks. The next dance is scheduled for Sept. 14.