By Chris Winters and Marie Damman Herald Writers
As Cory Graff led a tour group through the Flying Heritage Collection museum, he paused at each airplane or piece of equipment to tell a short story.
For the Curtiss JD-4D “Jenny,” a 1918 plane used in World War I, it was the fact that it had no brakes, just a tail skid to help it stop when landing on unpaved airfields.
The Flying Heritage Collection, which has been housed at Paine Field since 2008, is expanding its mission to include more educational programs and tours, along with flight simulators and games for kids.
Owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the museum acquires and restores vintage military aircraft and other weaponry, including tanks, antiaircraft equipment and other pieces of wartime history. Many of the planes in the collection are rare, and many can still fly.
And they all have stories, Graff said during the tour Thursday.
For the open-cockpit Soviet Polikarpov U-2/PO-2, he told of the women pilots who conducted wintertime night raids on German forces and earned the nickname Nachthexen, or “Night Witches.”
The German Focke-Wulf 190 A-5 fighter is the only airworthy example of its type left in the world. It was found in a swampy forest near Leningrad (now St. Petersburg, Russia), where it had lain since its pilot crash-landed there during World War II.
Graff, the museum’s Military aviation curator, was energetic and animated as he walked the group of 25 people through the two hangars. He clearly loved talking about the planes.
He tried to move the group through quickly, but the tour nonetheless ran overtime, a result of ebullient storytelling.
Not a problem for a self-described airplane enthusiast who grew up under the flight path of McChord Air Force Base, watching cargo planes land.
“I think that sort of got me. I saw planes going in and out all day,” Graff said.
The tour group included kids as young as 11 and some old hands in their 90s.
Victor and Oscar Lomholt, 11-year-old twins visiting from Bellevue with their mother, also didn’t mind the extended tour. Charlotte Lomholt said her kids know more about planes than she does.
“I’ve liked them for a long time, probably four years,” Victor Lomholt said. “He [Oscar] just started liking them.”
Oscar chimed in: “Approximately six months ago.”
More programs for children are a big part of the museum’s expanded mission. Graff estimated that 80 percent to 90 percent of visitors are men between ages 35-55.
With each tour taking a different theme — last week’s tour focused more on the idiosyncrasies of the various planes, which Graff writes about in his blogs, “Under the Cowl” and “Flight Paths” — the idea is that the collection will appeal to a wider audience.
Bringing in games on some weekends will also help, Graff said. On Saturday, kids and adults could experience flying an IL-2 Shturmovik on an Xbox while the actual plane was parked a few feet away.
Graff also said that the museum was working with hobby gaming groups to bring in tabletop war games, too.
Tours will continue on a monthly basis during the winter, and then pick up in the summer to coincide with the flying season, Graff said.
Also along on the tour was Elden Williams, 91, who flew strategic reconnaissance missions during World War II, retired from the Air Force in 1966, and has long worked in and around Paine Field as a pilot, businessman and now as a friend of the museum.
Williams estimated he’s flown 232 different aircraft over the years, including a dozen or so of the planes in the museum.
“The Bf 109s scared me the most,” Williams said, indicating a Messerschmitt in the collection that crashed during the war and was later found buried on a French beach in 1988.
The Bf 109 was not easy to fly at low altitudes, Williams said.
“I was worried about stalls,” he said.
Graff isn’t a pilot, but this is really his dream job. Every day at the museum might bring some new task. One day he might be asked to change a light bulb in the ceiling of the hangar, he said.
Walking past a U.S. Sherman tank and a Soviet T-36 tank parked next to the planes, he added,
“Then the next day, it’s like ‘Hey, can you drive a tank?’”
Chris Winters: 425-374-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Marie Damman: email@example.com.