Minot air museum honors, preserves aviation history
Minot’s Dakota Territory Air Museum opens its doors for the 2017 season May 13.
The air museum, located north of the Minot International Airport, tells the story of the area’s aviation history, including displays of military and civilian aircraft from the early 1900s to the present.
Last year, the air museum observed its 30th anniversary.
Don Larson, air museum board president, talked about the air museum and its history for a story published by the Minot Daily News in 2014.
The concept to establish an air museum in Minot came about in 1986 with the Minot-Ward County Centennial, Larson said.
He said the late Ed Schmit, who was centennial chairman, asked if he would serve as chairman of the Aviation Days Committee, which he did. “They wanted to have an air show,” Larson said. The late Al Pietsch, owner and operator of Pietsch Flying Service, also was on the committee, along with several other members.
Inside the committee as well as outside it, Larson said they talked about this might be an appropriate time for establishing a facility to preserve aviation history. “That’s kind of how it came about,” Larson said.
Incorporated in 1986
The Dakota Territory Air Museum was incorporated in the summer of 1986 by Larson, Al Pietsch and Warren Pietsch.
For a limited time they sold charter memberships – about 100 of them – at $200 a person or $300 a couple. After that, they sold lifetime memberships and also annual memberships.
Larson said that first building came about three years after the Minot-Ward County Centennial when Larry Erickson, of South Prairie, and S.F. “Buckshot” Hoffner were on the North Dakota Centennial Committee. Hoffner was chairman and Erickson, vice chairman.
“They asked us if the museum would be interested in putting on a state centennial air show. We agreed to do that,” Larson said. The air show was held in Minot.
“The state Centennial Commission gave us a grant of $20,000 to put on that air show. From that, plus some other fundraising and some other air shows that we had done, we had about $50,000 in the bank and we spent $40,000 or $45,000 on that first hangar,” Larson said.
In 1988, the group went ahead with construction of an 80-foot by 100-foot hangar. The structure, on the east side of the present museum, was the first building, now called the Restoration Hangar.
Unbeknownst to the founders at the time, that first building would be the start of several other projects to be done in the future.
In 1990 and 1991, an addition was made to the original hangar and includes the existing main entrance to the museum.
Later, the Oswin H. Elker Memorial Wing, named for World War II veteran and Flying Tiger Oswin H. Elker, a native of Surrey, was added. It was followed by the Wings of Freedom Expansion, an addition to the original Elker Wing.
“That (Wings of Freedom Expansion) was actually the fourth building project to the museum,” Larson said.
In 2013, the new Flying Legends Hangar that was built to house warbirds of the Texas Flying Legends Museum, was dedicated. It is the museum’s fifth building project.
“The first few years were pretty slow,” Larson recalled. After building the original hangar, they had some activities there – some breakfasts, sponsored some air shows – and they started getting in a couple planes.
One of their earliest big fundraisers was a “100 airports, 100 years” cachet event held in 1989, celebrating the 100 public-use airports in North Dakota. Since that time, there are no longer 100 such airports, Larson said. Three hundred envelopes printed with centennial stamps were sent to communities across the state served by the 100 airports. A route was set up in the summer of 1989 with planes flying two routes, picking up the envelopes stamped with cancellations. “We didn’t have a lot of money to go out and market it heavy but it was a pretty good fundraiser for us,” Larson said.
The air museum volunteers didn’t have any problems getting items for the new air museum.
“People donated a lot of things,” Larson said. “That was one of the things that prompted us to move forward with the museum.”
Even prior to the museum’s establishment, Pietsch Flying Service had become a drop-off point for many people who had aviation-related items. When they didn’t know what to do with an item or wanted to discard of it, people would drop it off there.
But Larson said he noticed it seemed to take about the first 10 years of the air museum’s operation before people were comfortable with the fact that the museum was here to stay. “People are a little bit skeptical when something new is started. It seemed like after we had been around for about 10 years, people really started saying, ‘Hey, this thing is for real. We feel comfortable with donating to the museum,” he said.
Oswin Elker donation
In about the mid-1990s, the museum received a major donation of $325,000 from Oswin Elker. Elker, who was living in Rochester, Minn., had visited the museum with relatives and provided the museum some of his World War II items for display, starting with a few items and later adding more. “He just liked what we were doing,” Larson said.
Elker’s monetary contribution was huge for the air museum, and kept it going, Larson said. He said at some of the board meetings they were wondering where the dollars were going to come from to pay the utilities. “We had this building and we had to heat it. It was probably $300 a month but it was critical. But when he (Elker) came up with that, we used some of it for the Elker Hangar. I think we built that for just under $200.
The air museum has an extensive amount of memorabilia in storage, including “tons of pictures,” Larson said, adding, “It’s a continuous effort to try to put the display cases together.”
The air museum has a donation agreement or loan agreement for items people would like to have at the facility.
In 2007, Glenn Blackaby became the air museum’s first full-time curator. Larson said that hiring a full-time yearround curator was a huge step for them.
Besides the many exhibits inside the air museum, there’s exhibits outside.
“The T-33 that sits outside was the first airplane we got,” Larson said. “Actually that was one of those community airplanes. The Air Force had loaned it to the City of Minot and they were going to have it on display. That was right when we were getting the museum open. George Christensen was mayor at the time. He and the city council said that since the plane was coming to the community they wanted it to go to the museum. They felt it would be the place for it to go.
(Editor’s note: The T-33 now is part of a 5th Fighter Interceptor Squadron display that was dedicated May 6, 2016, and honors the men and women of 5th Fighter. The display also includes two other aircraft, an F-106 and an F-15, all planes representing the aircraft once flown by 5th Fighter. An A-7 Corsair II is in a new separate display on the grounds.) Volunteers restored the planes for display.
The F-15 was at Minot AFB for some time and then was moved to the air museum in fall 2013. It is on loan from the National Museum of the Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
The F-106 came from Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona. The air museum received a $30,500 grant from North Dakota Tourism to help with the F-106 project, and the air museum matched the grant with $30,500.
The air museum has developed an annual educational program for kids. The ACE and PACE programs are popular programs. ACE Camp introduces third-and fourth-graders to general aviation concepts. PACE Camp gives fifth-and sixth-graders the opportunity to experience in-depth aviation concepts.
The Magic City Discovery Center, a nonprofit organization also has operated a children’s museum in the Flying Legends Hangar.
An important part of the Dakota Territory Air Museum is its tie with the Texas Flying Legends Museum based at Ellington Field in Houston.
“It started with Hank Reichert’s Mustang,” said Larson. “Hank was a real staunch supporter of our museum and he’d bring his Mustang up here during the summer months.”
Reichert, of Bismarck, owned a P-51 Mustang that he had reconditioned and painted like the “Dakota Kid II,” a P-51 flown by Nobel Peterson of Hettinger, who had flown more than 100 missions during World War II.
“That was huge to have a Mustang here,” Larson said.
When Reichert decided to sell his Mustang, Houston buyers saw it advertised in a publication and bought it. When Ed and Maria Bosarge and Bruce Eames came to Minot to see their new plane and get a ride in it, Warren Pietsch was the pilot. The Houston group also saw the Japanese Zero sitting in the air museum.
Interested in having the Mustang and the Zero brought to Houston for the Wings Over Houston air show, Pietsch told them that could be done. And it was.
They worked out an agreement, the planes were brought to Houston and they ended up also buying the Zero. “They started buying some other planes,” Larson said. “They got the bug and by the next summer, I think they had five or six airplanes that they had bought.
“So they came up here, got the ride in the airplane, got to look at the museum and see what we were doing and again – it was kind of a deal like Oswin Elker. He just kind of liked what we were doing and the direction we were going – and they just liked what was happening,” Larson said.
The Texas Flying Legends Museum group then decided they would bring their planes to Minot every summer so the planes would not be sitting in Houston during the hurricane season.
“So they started bringing them up here,” Larson said.
The Texas Flying Legends Museum has expanded its fleet of planes. But when the Texas Flying Legends Museum owners decided more space was needed for their planes in Minot, soon plans were under way for a hangar.
On July 4, 2013, the Flying Legends Museum hangar at the air museum site was dedicated. The hangar belongs to the air museum and the Texas Flying Legends Museum paid for it. “We got a half-million grant from the city but that wouldn’t have happened without the Texas Flying Legends Museum,” Larson said.
Events continue to be held at the air museum, some for raising funds, including the annual year for a plane raffle with proceeds going to the air museum.
On the day before the 70th anniversary of D-Day, June 5, 2014, the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce’s Military Affairs Committee held a dedication for a B-52 model displayed in front of the museum. The model is a token of the community’s appreciation to the Air Force.
Looking back at the air museum’s developments over the years, Larson said the air museum today is “way beyond” their original expectations. “I never dreamed we would have all this,” he said.