Imagine it is 1942. The United States has just joined World War II and there is a sudden need for bomber pilots. A row of hangars sits in a field near the town of South St. Paul and a small runway buzzes with the takeoffs and landings of scores of fighter pilots in training. By the end of the war, approximately 2,100 pilots had received training at Fleming Field.Today, if you walk by the airport on certain summer evenings, you can still hear the sounds of engines whirring or strains of jazz and swing wafting on the breeze. Take a look inside hangar #3 and you might think your eyes deceive you – hundreds of people sporting attire and hairstyles from an era long past, dancing to the harmonies of the Andrews Sisters. It’s not a ghost sighting. No, you’ve stumbled onto one of the period dances held by the Minnesota Wing of the Commemorative Air Force.
For 39 years, the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) has rented a hangar at Fleming Field and sought to preserve the history of Minnesota’s role in World War II. The CAF currently owns six functioning World War II–era planes and operates a World War II museum inside the hangar. The museum is free and open to the public and is often visited by groups from schools and veterans organizations. The hangar also serves as an event center and plays host to CAF fundraising dances as well as weddings, corporate events and other functions.
However, the hangar is old and the city has made it clear that some modifications are necessary if the CAF wants to continue renting the hangar. Additional entrances and exits, more restrooms and fire sprinklers are required to bring the building up to code. The CAF would also like to enhance the space dedicated to the museum. But renovations take dollars and the CAF is an all-volunteer organization, relying solely on fundraising to cover operating costs and plane restoration and maintenance.
Krech, O’Brien, Mueller & Associates became involved when CAF member Glenn Franke approached the firm seeking help. The CAF found an advocate in KOMA principal Dan O’Brien, who has long had an affection for the planes housed at Fleming Field. “I crawled around in these planes when they brought them back from Texas in the early fifties,” said O’Brien. “I lived a couple miles away, and would ride my bike down to the airport, sneak through the barbed wire fence and climb around inside the bombers, which even still had the machine guns in them, or at least we pretended they did.”
O’Brien, Jennifer Gale of the Chamber, and the leadership of the CAF contacted Senator Jim Metzen last year to ask for $150,000 from the bonding bill to help fund the project. Since then, KOMA has worked on code requirements, budgeting, building designs and permit drawings, much of which was done pro bono. KOMA’s years of experience working with the city has helped the CAF navigate some of the communication challenges they’ve encountered and figure out how to meet the code requirements for this type of facility.
With the plans in place, all that’s needed now is for the funds from the bonding bill, which were approved, to be released. A few more items still need to be cleared by the city, but the CAF is optimistic that they’ll be able to move forward on the project soon.