- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 23, 2014

TAYLORVILLE, Ill. (AP) - It was a short trip from mankind’s exhilarating conquest of powered flight to figuring out how to use aircraft to kill other men.

Those pioneering Ohio brother bicycle mechanics, Orville and Wilbur Wright, made the world’s first controlled, powered airplane flight Dec. 17, 1903. Just 11 years later, pilots in twin-winged flying machines of wood, wire and cloth were machine-gunning each out of the air and making hand-dropped bombing runs in the skies of Europe in World War I.

It’s a dazzlingly fast and bloody journey and can be difficult to follow unless you drop in at Taylorville Municipal Airport’s main office and gaze into the glass-fronted cabinets taxied along two walls. Tiny and to scale die cast metal model aircraft take the hovering eye on a journey through aviation history with a heavy trim toward the war bird side of the story.

The Wright brothers’ kite-like plane is there, a quick hop down the glass shelves from those World War I fighters, including the crimson Fokker triplane flown by “Red Baron” German ace Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthoven. Once the visitor’s eye takes off, it’s hard to stop, strafing the serried ranks of offensive aviation until we reach America’s latest and stealthy dark angels of the apocalypse, the F-22 and F-35 jets.

There are more than 200 models on display, measuring from a few inches to wingspans of 18 inches and all precisely to scale. They are the lifetime collection of Taylorville’s John McClure, a retired insurance and real estate businessman and keen private pilot who took his first plane ride at age 6 in 1941 and never wanted to come down.

He has a particular admiration for his fellow Americans who go up to the sky in planes to smite the enemies of freedom in turbulent air far from home. Interspersed with the aircraft are pictures of local veterans who flew and crewed the real things in anger.

McClure points to a snapshot of one Taylorville man who survived something like 80 missions on B-25 Mitchell bombers in World War II.

“Years later, after he died, they found his diary,” recalls McClure, 79. “The last page said something like ‘We made it without a scratch; thank God, we’re going home.’ These were brave men.”

The keen accumulator of model aviation had first noticed the die-cast versions of the brave men’s machines for sale in stores some 25 years ago, and his collection started when he could no longer resist flying a few back to his home. “I thought ‘those are kind of neat, I had better have some of them,’” he recalls. And it went from there. Two years ago he donated the collection to the airport, and it’s now the star attraction for visiting pilots and their passengers.

“People come in here, and that collection is the first place they go,” says Valerie Miles, 48, the airport records clerk with a job that includes selling oil, helping with refueling, cleaning the building and taking care of the runway lights.

“I had a gentleman just this morning, came by helicopter, and was in here to get fuel. He came in, took his coat off, and then went straight over to the display. People just gravitate towards it.”

There’s a sprinkling of commercial aviation for everyone to look at too, including some key passenger airliners and the craft of brave pioneers such as Charles Lindbergh and the daring and vanished Amelia Earhart. But the military stuff has a way of regaining command of the roaming eye, and the more you look, the more you see.

McClure’s star exhibit, however, is not a model at all but a picture of a World War II B-25 Mitchell bomber signed by six airmen who were among the survivors of the first attack on the Japanese homeland staged by the U.S. Army Air Forces; that sorte was the famous Doolittle Raid of April 18, 1942.

McClure said their 16 planes were converted to flying gas cans filled with bombs, and it was a one-way trip from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet with no way to fly home. Three died in the raid and its aftermath, and eight were taken prisoner by the Japanese; three of those were later executed and one would die from disease, starvation and maltreatment in prison. McClure, who got to meet some of the men commanded by the late Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, said the raid put a severe twist in the imperial underwear of the Japanese military and restored American morale shattered after Pearl Harbor.

“I really admire those Doolittle Raiders,” he says.

McClure doesn’t put himself much in the collection, but there is a picture of him serving in the Army in South Korea just after the Korean War, standing there in minus 40-degree air temperatures topped with a minus 70-degree wind chill. He looks pretty tough, and there is indeed a kind of can-do, in-your-face look that shines out of his whole collection, war birds and all, which neatly sums up the attitude of GIs throughout the years who, by air, land and sea, have shown generations of dictators, warlords and thugs the error of their ways.

Down in one corner, below the model warplanes, is a picture of the North Koreans getting the GI treatment. McClure explains that at Panmunjom on the border between the Koreas, where they met to cease hostilities after the Korean War, the communist North Koreans chose to build a big administration building atop a little hill.

“Well, later, we found out that according to Korean custom the victor takes the high ground,” says McClure, explaining the building was meant as a symbol of one-upmanship.

He said the GI response was to build a two-hole outhouse immediately opposite the new North Korean building.

“Boy, did the North Koreans have a hissy-fit over that one,” he recalls with glee.

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Source: (Decatur) Herald and Review, http://bit.ly/1pHzpaY

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Information from: Herald & Review, http://www.herald-review.com

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