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John Wayne Airport now home to vintage military aircraft

The newly opened Lyon Air Museum is a tribute to World War II and the birth of modern aviation. It's the work of pilot and real estate investor William Lyon, a passionate collector.

December 24, 2009|By Mike Anton
  • A Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress makes for an impressive backdrop during an event at the Lyon Air Museum at John Wayne Airport. It was piloted by the museum's namesake, who admitted to a case of nerves.
A Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress makes for an impressive backdrop during an… (Christine Cotter / Los Angeles…)

Real estate magnate William Lyon fell in love with aviation at age 16 after paying $1 to fly in an airplane. Seventy years later, that enduring love is on display at John Wayne Airport, in a recently opened museum stocked with vintage military aircraft from the 86-year-old home builder's private collection.

The Lyon Air Museum, housed in a newly constructed 30,000-square-foot building with gleaming white floors and a wall of windows overlooking a runway, is a tribute to World War II and the birth of modern aviation.

"It's not just a hangar filled with flying machines," said Mark Foster, a historian and restorer of vintage aircraft who was recruited to oversee Lyon's museum. "It's a venue of inspiration."

There's a B-17 Flying Fortress, which once ferried generals Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. A Douglas A-26B Invader, an attack bomber equipped with multiple .50-caliber machine guns and 14 rockets. A North American B-25, 16 of which bombed Tokyo in 1942 -- the first U.S. strike on Japanese soil. A DC-3, which dropped members of the Army's 101st Airborne Division into France on D-day.

Each has been restored to look as if it just came off the assembly line ready to fly -- as they all still can. Exhibits tell the story of the war's battle for the skies. Volunteer docents tell their own stories.

"I flew a B-17 and was shot down over Berlin," said Harry Selling, 89. "Sept. 12, 1944. We were captured by two little boys. We thought they were going to help us. Instead, they took us to their village, where we were set upon by the citizens." Selling spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp.

Lyon's inspiration for creating the museum can be found in his own life. Before cashing in on the postwar suburban housing boom, Lyon was a decorated pilot. He served in World War II and flew combat missions during the Korean War, attaining the rank of major general. In the 1970s, Lyon left the business world for four years when he was appointed chief of the Air Force Reserve by President Ford.

Today, friends and family still refer to Lyon simply as "The General." Given that, it seemed fitting that he would make a commanding entrance at his museum's recent grand opening ceremony.

As invitees ate crab cake appetizers and sipped cappuccinos, a massive windowed door opened to the airport. A B-17, its four propellers roaring, inched to within feet of the entrance as people snapped photos with their cellphones. Then, Lyon gingerly descended from the plane's stairs wearing a leather bomber jacket and a white scarf.

"I wonder how many people here were nervous when we were taxiing that plane," he told the crowd. "If you weren't, I was."

Lyon has long been known as a serious collector of antique planes and vehicles, some of which are also on display at the museum, including a 1939 Mercedes-Benz used by Adolf Hitler.

But Lyon doesn't believe these are just to be admired as pieces of history or works of art. They are also tools to be driven and flown. Last year, Lyon piloted a B-17 to Washington, D.C., for a war memorial ceremony.

"This," he said of the museum, "is the fulfillment of a dream I had a long time ago."

mike.anton@latimes.com

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