Aircraft and submarine restoration near Chicago

Posted in Museums, War by Alex L. on February 6, 2013

USS Drum submarine

I really like the kind of reality shows where you get to watch experts performing complex jobs with great skill. I enjoy it all: from Ice Pilots NWT, where aviators brave extreme winter conditions to fly in northern Canada, to Big Shrimpin’, a show about fishermen plying their trade off of the southern coast of the United States.

These past couple of weeks I’ve been interested in a show called Tank Overhaul. Each episode features a crew of a few men restoring rusty and battle-damaged tanks (from the World War II era and later) to like-new condition. There’s just something about sand-blasting decades-old rust from a tank chassis to reveal a brilliant metallic surface underneath that gets me going. With a wave  of a wand (literally) time is reversed and these half-decayed battle tanks come to life again.

Truth be told, though, I’m not a big tank enthusiast. But this show got me thinking about the restoration and preservation of two types of machines that I do have a passion for: (no surprise here to anyone who reads this blog) submarines and airplanes. So I got to imagining: is there anywhere in the Chicago area where I can see or even volunteer in the restoration of these historical artifacts?

A simple search revealed a few interesting leads.


There is an association of former submariners devoted to restoring old ships around the country. It’s called Save Our Submarines, and every year they choose a submarine (usually one sitting and rusting in some outdoor museum) to sponsor. A directory of all of the submarines on display in the United States can be found here.

Chicago is really lucky to have the WWII-era German submarine, U-505, displayed at the Museum of Science and Industry. I went on a VIP tour of the submarine in 2011 and had a blast. I remember when that U-boat was also rusting in an outdoor area until the museum undertook a huge restoration project to move the boat inside of a specially-built exhibit space (a design reminiscent of the historical U-boat pens). From what I can tell from their website, though, volunteers are not currently needed to help restore that submarine.

The other submarines on display within a tolerable driving distance of Chicago are the USS Cobia in Manitowoc, WI and the USS Silversides in Muskegon, MI. Both are WWII-era boats that served in the U.S. Navy. The one in Manitowoc is the closest, and is doubly interesting because Manitowoc actually used to be a submarine manufacturing center for the Navy (all of the other main production facilities were all located on either the West or East Coast). That museum also welcomes volunteers to help maintain and restore their boat. That makes me want to live in Wisconsin again!


There are more opportunities to see and take part in restoration of vintage aircraft in the Chicago area. Here is a listing I found of warbirds museums in the U.S. Of course there is the AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, WI — an aviation history goldmine — but that’s about as far from Chicago as Manitowoc.

The only one of the aviation museums listed for Illinois that I’ve visited is the Prairie Aviation Museum in Bloomington. It has a small collection of mostly jets on display outside. Some of the jets have a ladder where you can climb and see inside of the cockpit. There are a few buildings with several collections of smaller pieces on display, including a plethora of model airplanes.

That museum is still a 2+ hour drive from northwest Chicagoland, where I live. A couple of options that are a bit closer are the Air Classics Museum of Aviation in Sugar Grove (albeit with the dubious claim on its website of being “Chicagoland’s only Aviation Museum”) and the Vintage Wings and Wheels Museum in Poplar Grove.

But the two restoration institutions that are most exciting for me are the Illinois Aviation Museum in Bolingbrook and the Warbird Heritage Foundation in Waukegan. Both are within reasonable driving distance so that one could volunteer there on a weekly or semi-weekly basis. The former has a nice collection of WWI-era planes and actively seeks volunteers to help with restorations. The latter is not quite a museum but an organization focused on the admirable task of restoring vintage aircraft to flying condition (and even exhibiting them in air shows).

The kicker for me is this: this December, the WHF bought a variant of the F4U Corsair and are now in the process of restoring it. That plane has a special significance for me (more on this later) although I’m not sure whether they look for volunteers to help with restoration work. In any case, they have a Facebook page which is regularly updated with the nitty-gritty details about their restoration work. Needless to say I “liked” it.

I’m glad I took the time today to find out more about some of the museums of interest to me in my area. Well, the clock has been ticking and it’s actually a few hours past midnight into the next day. Time to call it a night.

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