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2017 Great Race evening stop – Ypsilanti, home of the Willow Run bomber factory

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Part of the Willow Run complex that will be transformed into the Yankee Air Museum. Still images from video below, unless otherwise noted.

The Great Race has been to Ypsilanti, Michigan before, and our last visit there was a lunch stop during the 2012 Great Race around the Great Lakes. The town is known for its Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum and the National Hudson Motor Car Museum which both reside on East Cross Street, right across the commuter rail tracks in downtown Ypsilanti. Another well-known landmark in town is the famous Willow Run Ford plant, which stopped automotive production during WW II to produce 8,865 B-24 Liberator bomber aircraft.

The plant had an over a mile-long production line that employed over 42,000 civilians in its heyday. The lone B-24 assembly line when the plane was first built was located at the Consolidated Aircraft facility in California, and the manufacturer was producing the planes at the rate of one every month. Willow Run, in contrast and at its peak, was producing a B-24 every hour.

B24s under construction at Willow Run in WW II.

The plant was sold to Kaiser-Frazer after the end of WW II, and models of both of those cars were produced there as well as the Henry J (and the Sears Allstate). During the Korean War, C-119 “Flying boxcar” cargo planes were also produced there. General Motors leased the factory from Kaiser after the Hydramatic plant in Livonia, Michigan burned in 1953. Transmissions were produced at Willow Run until 1959, when the factory was converted to a Fischer body plant that produced bodies for Corvairs and Novas. Willow Run also produced M16A1 rifles and M39A1 autocannons during the Vietnam War era. The last GM Fischer body rolled off their production line in 1992.

Yankee Air Museum

The layout of the coming Yankee Air Museum. Image courtesy

The factory was due for the wrecking ball several years ago until an organization of residents, former factory workers and city council members launched the Save the Bomber Plant non-profit and the Michigan Aerospace Foundation to purchase the old factory and preserve its manufacturing heritage. The organization was co-chaired by GM Executive Bob Lutz and astronaut Jack Louzma, and they and hundreds of other volunteers successfully raised enough money to save the 144,000-square foot facility from demolition.

Phase two of their efforts involves the construction of a new Yankee Air Museum, which will use the excitement of aviation history to inspire children and young adults to embrace STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) as a means to a successful future in tomorrow’s labor force by continuing their education and work experience in one of these four fields of expertise.  Future plans for the museum include the display of a vintage Liberator produced at the factory as well as other airplanes, an interactive exploration station, an airplane preservation section where additional vintage aircraft will be restored for display, and an area dedicated to the Rosie the Riveters, the female factory workers who did much of the manufacturing during the plant’s Second World War production. Willow Run was also one of the first factories that gave equal pay for equal work to women, with women accounting for over 30% of the wartime work force.

The Michigan Aerospace Foundation has set a goal of collecting $20 million in donations to complete the renovations of the Willow Run facility. To date, it has already received over $7 million towards that goal through fund raisers such as two successful Guinness World Record attempts at the most Rosie the Riveters in one place at one time. The first record was in Ypsilanti in 2015 with 2,097 but that record was broken in Richmond, California, in 2016 with 2,229 Rosies.

Rosie the Riveter

Image courtesy

Several of the Ypsilanti Rosies were at the Great Race finish line this year, raising awareness about the organization and collecting donations. They braved 90-degree weather in full Rosie garb including blue coveralls and the iconic polka dot bandana. You can find out more about the museum, or donate to the cause, at the website.