We’d come to Ohio planning to find places to ride our bikes. But rain was our constant companion on our drive north towards Lake Erie, so we looked for indoor activities along the way to Put-In-Bay.
After a morning at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museum in Spiegel Grove, we arrived in Port Clinton later than we planned. Pulling into the parking lot of the Liberty Aviation Museum, we saw a neon sign for a diner inside.
When we met Todd Hackbarth, our volunteer guide for the afternoon, we explained we needed to grab a bite to eat before the tour. He steered us into the Tin Goose Diner. Not only does the restaurant help fund the museum, but it’s part of the displays.
It’s an authentic 1950s diner restored to its former glory. For decades, it served the residents of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. Looking out across the airfield of the Erie-Ottawa Regional Airport, we enjoyed tasty burgers and home-made onion rings before starting our tour.
Opened in 2012, the Liberty Aviation Museum is a relatively young museum. The core of collectors involved with it, however, started pulling together World War II aircraft for air shows nearly 20 years before. These enthusiasts would meet to do hands-on work on the vintage planes to keep them flying. While they made plans in the late 90s to start the museum on the grounds of the airport, it took a benefactor, George Woodling, Jr., to make it happen.
The museum occupies two hangars at the airport. Walking into the lobby and visiting the diner, it wasn’t obvious we were in a hanger. But when we followed Todd into the Civilian Aviation Gallery, we could see the vast open space that adjoined it.
The centerpiece of this gallery is an exhibit on Island Airlines, the air service that started connecting the Lake Erie Islands with the mainland in 1937 with scheduled air service for $1 a flight. Todd described it as the “world’s shortest airline.” It takes less than fifteen minutes by air to get from the airfield here to the airport on Put-In-Bay.
Milt Hershberger started this air service by ferrying people and goods by Ford Tri-Motor aircraft. It was an important service since in the winter the lake freezes and boats couldn’t run. People who lived on the islands year-round needed groceries, mail delivery, and access to medical assistance.
While we later learned about iceboats on the ice of Lake Erie, air was the only reliable year-round connector between the islands. To this day, children are flown between the islands and to the mainland daily to attend school, depending on which grade they are in. The only school on the islands is on South Bass Island at Put-In-Bay.
The Ford Tri-Motor was an early metal-skinned airplane and was the first to be designed to carry passengers. Less than two hundred were built. A workhorse, it made aviation history many times, including right here in Ohio.
On July 8, 1929, two of them took flight from Columbus, Ohio on a cross-country journey to Glendale, California. This provided the spark to start Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT), which tied together flights by day with railroad service by night to create a route that spanned from coast to coast. Passenger air travel across the United States was born. TAT eventually became TWA.
While the history of the Ford Tri-Motor was the centerpiece of the Civilian Aviation Gallery, additional exhibits around the room covered topics ranging from civil aviation uniforms to the National Air Races, and Cleveland Model Supply model aircraft kits.
There was also a case with memorabilia from the 1960s TV show Hogan’s Heroes. Todd told us that the museum director collected TV and movie memorabilia related to World War II, and so we should expect to see more of it around the museum.
From the Civilian Aviation Gallery, we walked into the hanger. Vintage aircraft, fire trucks, and automobiles – among them a 1950s Ford Mustang, a Ford Victoria Ranch Wagon, and a 1957 Chevy Bel Air convertible – surrounded a large open space with a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. The museum rents out the space for weddings, graduations, and private parties.
Leaving Hanger One, we headed across the taxiway for Hanger Two, painted to look like it was from the 1940s. As we crossed the tarmac I noticed what looked like a strange old wooden boat tucked off to the side. Something about it told me that I should recognize what it was, so I asked. It was in fact a World War II PT boat, a future restoration project for the museum.
I’d known a fellow who served in the war and retired from the Navy. When I asked where he had been stationed during the war, with a smile he said Jacksonville and Green Cove Springs, right along the St. Johns River in Florida. He was in college when his number came up, so they drafted him as an entry-level officer and he became a PT boat captain. He spent his tour of duty moving PT boats between these two ports for service and repairs.
Entering the hanger, we were face-to-face with a vintage Ford Tri-Motor under restoration. It was a work in progress, but it was also a work of art. The volunteer craftsman were replacing the corrugated aluminum skin with bright new panels, building their own tools as they worked on it. The last Ford Tri-Motor was built in 1933, making many original tools and dies impossible to find.
The long-time use of Ford Tri-Motors to serve the residents of Port Clinton and the Erie Islands led the aviation enthusiasts who founded this museum to find one used locally to restore. This airplane flew for Island Airlines from 1946 to 1952 before it was sold and went elsewhere.
While the foundation working with the museum on aircraft restoration already has a Ford Tri-Motor, the “Tin Goose,” restored and offering flights, being able to track down and restore a Ford Tri-Motor that actually flew from this airport was a coup.
Once finished, the “City of Port Clinton” will again be flying out of this airport. It was a plane similar to this (but a different manufacturer) that Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic in 1927, and in 1929 Richard Byrd was aboard for the first flight over the South Pole. Todd told us that the restoration project on this 5AT-40 was now in its 17th year, and would probably take another five to seven years to complete.
In the Military Aviation Gallery off the hanger, a display explained the PT boat connection. A local fellow and high school football hero, Leonard Thom, went to war and was assigned to a PT boat in the Pacific. While on patrol, his boat was torpedoed and sank. It was PT-109. His fellow surviving shipmate was a young officer named John F Kennedy. Adding this notable episode of his World War II service to his high school fame, Thom returned to Sandusky after the war.
In addition to information about Thom, the Military Aviation Gallery honors the Tuskegee Airmen, with a special nod to Ohio resident Dr. Harold Brown. One vignette contains the goblets and program for the final toast of Doolittle’s Raiders in 2013.
The gallery also showcases vintage motorcycles, models of military aircraft and vehicles, World War II weapons, memorabilia tied to World War II movies, and German war artifacts, including a Volkswagen Kübelwagen pulling a field kitchen.
The center of the hangar has a collection best described as a military motorpool, but it isn’t just dedicated to United States vehicles. The parade of U.S. Army Jeeps and halftracks is joined by their German counterparts. An unusual standout among the military vehicles is a sleek vintage bus once used by Goodyear as air support for their blimps.
Beyond the vehicles, across the huge hanger, I could see the ribs of a ship. The planking was removed and restoration underway. Todd told us the museum had acquired this ship, PT-728, and had sent it out for restoration. When it returned and they launched it, they immediately realized something was wrong. It wasn’t seaworthy.
It was brought to Hanger Two, where another group of volunteers under the supervision of a talented boatwright are doing a restoration and upgrade. Modern diesel power will replace the inefficient gas engines and it will upgraded to current Coast Guard requirements.
They figure it will be another four or five years until they can take it on the water. Crafted in Annapolis, PT-728 was of a class of PT boats among the smallest built. It is only 70 feet long.
More vintage aircraft occupied this side of Hanger Two, including a World War II vintage torpedo bomber, a TBM Avenger built by General Motors, of the type that President George H.W. Bush flew during his tour of duty.
This particular aircraft was accepted by the U.S. Navy late in the war and didn’t see combat. Not only is it flightworthy, but the museum uses it for fundraising, should you be interested in booking a flight on it.
As we finished up our tour, Todd showed us “Georgie’s Gal,” one of only 34 surviving North American B-25J Mitchell Bombers built in 1945. The B-25 was the aircraft used by Doolittle’s Raiders. This aircraft had many owners before George Woodling, Jr set eyes on it. The museum acquired it in 2011 and had it restored to flight condition. When Liberty Aviation Museum opened its doors, “Georgie’s Gal” helped inaugurate it.
With car shows, aircraft rides, Big Band dances, and other special events year-round, the Liberty Aviation Museum has quite an array of activities to match its World War II themed vehicles, aircraft, and memorabilia, and a dedicated corps of volunteers to keep it going.
Telling the story of both local aviation and the World War II era through its aircraft, vehicles, and exhibits, it’s a must-see for 1940s nostalgia and military / aviation buffs.
Liberty Aviation Museum is less than 20 minutes west of Sandusky, Ohio via SR 2 and SR 53. It is on the grounds of the Erie-Ottawa Regional Airport but has its own entrance and parking east of the airport terminal.