Michigan museum founder added to aviation hall of fame
By GUS BURNS
The Ann Arbor News
AP Member Exchange
YPSILANTI, Mich.– Staring at the tail section of a World War II-era bomber, his head is in the clouds.
Dennis Norton, co-founder of the Yankee Air Museum at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, imagines the chaos young men experienced flying bombing raids in clunky bombers over Europe while Nazi pilots hunted them in the sky.
He envisions men and women — his mother among them — back home in the noisy Ford-operated Willow Run bomber plant, stamping steel and shooting rivets into sheet metal around the clock as they assembled the B-24 bomber, what is considered one of the most destructive aircraft flown by the Allies during their battle against Adolph Hitler.
“If it hadn’t been for the Willow Run bomber plant and building almost 9,000 B-24 bombers, we would have had a very difficult time winning World War II,” Norton told The Ann Arbor News , “because we needed the long-range bombers that were built here to defeat Germany.”
Most of the old 5 million-square-foot plant — except for a small section Norton plans to convert for future use by the Yankee Air Museum — is no longer standing. Norton said General Motors Corp. last owned the former bomber plant and had occupied it since the 1950s.
“We’ve managed to save about 3 percent of the original bomber plant,” Norton said.
While contemplating the past, Norton simultaneously evaluates his own legacy, something he partially solidified in April with his induction into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame.
The selection was thanks to Norton’s nearly 40-year effort to preserve the Michigan’s bomber plant history while capturing the attention of area students, some of whom he expects to pursue careers in aerospace or become pilots.
“It was very unexpected,” Norton said. “Recognition of what I did to start this and save this history was tremendous, just made me feel so good that they’re recognizing something that will far outweigh me.
“A hundred years from now, nobody will remember me, but it will be here.”
Norton took his first flight at Willow Run Airport as a child with his “history-buff” father, who learned to fly while in the U.S. Navy conducting missions in the Pacific Ocean theater during WWII. He’s been consumed by flight — and history — ever since.
Norton, a pilot himself, spent his career working as an entrepreneur and developer, but always returned to his favorite “hobby” in his free time — aviation.