by Jim Hanson
Published by Midwest Flyer – February/March 2017
I’ve been to most of the big and famous aviation museums in the United States, and elsewhere. I love visiting all of them, and better yet, I’ve been able to get “behind the scenes” in most of them, as a reporter. Most of the museums require extensive travel, but we have some fantastic aviation museums right here in Minnesota. One of my favorites is the Fagen Fighters WWII Museum in Granite Falls, Minnesota.
My wife, Maryalice, fellow pilot, Ken Asbe, and I were returning from an annual glider event hosted by Lakes Area Technical Institute (LATI) in Watertown, South Dakota. LATI has a superb A&P school, and also flight training. The students and staff there have restored several gliders and airplanes, and we have conducted ground-launch glider operations there – an inexpensive way to teach glider flying. Last year, we conducted a program to teach high school STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) teachers to use aviation as practical problems in their classrooms, and trained the A&P students and rated glider pilots how to ground launch gliders, and gave rides to the STEM teachers. This year, we again trained A&P students, and gave glider rides to high school students. Afterward, I suggested we visit Fagen Fighters WWII Museum on the way home. As we pulled up, I spied Ron Fagen, himself…the crew was running up a P-40. As we walked up to him, he greeted me by name, and I introduced Maryalice and Ken. Ron spends most of his weekends at the airport (he’s THAT kind of “airplane guy!”).
I’ve found that many privately-funded museums tend to be “vanity” museums…a way to show off a personal collection, or sometimes, “look what I’ve got.” Not so with this little jewel. The “Fagen” in this museum is not for Ron Fagen, owner of an international construction company and ethanol manufacturing plants, and a major employer in southern Minnesota. Rather, the museum is named in honor of his father, Ray Fagen – a pilot, and veteran of World War II. The museum is owned by the Fagen FAMILY. Ron says (seriously), “The museum is run by my wife, Diane (also a pilot). If you have questions, see HER!”
Aviation runs in the blood of the Fagen family, starting with grandad Ray, then Ron. Son, Evan, is the chief pilot and flies all of the airplanes. Judging from the number of grandkids Ron was playing with around the museum, there will be a 4th generation of Fagens carrying on the tradition!
The Fagens have a corporate flight department for their business. Granite Falls is located about 100 nm west of the Twin Cities, and a corporate airplane helps them keep in touch with projects.
Like many rural companies, it is safe to say, “Our company wouldn’t have prospered and employed as many people as we do today without the ability to move quickly by air,” says Ron. The company utilizes a Citation XLS, Beech model 58 Baron, and A-36 Bonanza, with Ron flying the Bonanza and Baron personally on business.
I’ve known Ron for years, as he would frequent our FBO in Albert Lea. Ron has the qualities exhibited by so many successful people, though he is always on the go and is pressed for time. Ron will take the time to say hello – to introduce himself – and most remarkably, to remember people and names. Meet him on an airport ramp, and he is just another businessman in a Bonanza, and he may well recognize you.
Over 40 years ago, however, he was bitten by the aerobatics bug, then moved to warbirds. I’ve followed the progress of the Fagen Fighters WWII Museum for years. Initially, I thought it would be another “wealthy pilot buys a warbird.” I was wrong. He started with perhaps the most humble of airplanes…his dad’s two-place Ercoupe….a homage to his dad, Ray. That beautifully restored airplane is hangared in a place of honor at the museum, and like all of the collection, it is flown regularly.
Rather than just ACQUIRING warbirds, Fagen was thinking of actually RESTORING warbirds! He started with a P-40E, then a rare P-38, a P-40K, then ANOTHER P-40E. Fagen Fighters is best known, however, for their Curtiss P-40 restorations. He acquired FIVE P-40s from Russia, and has built them up individually, with two of them winning BOTH the Grand Champion Award and the Golden Wrench Award at Oshkosh. “Why the P-40?” most people ask. “The airplane is stone simple,” Fagen answers. “The Allison engine has about 1/3 of the critical engine parts of the Merlin that powers the P-51. The airplane is simple to maintain, and simple to fly. It’s a perfect first warbird!”
I asked Ron what the crew was working on these days; he responded by opening the maintenance shop and inviting us to look around, as he went back to the P-40.
His P-38 was getting an annual inspection and was all opened up for us to see (I was once again reminded of just how BIG a P-38 is!). A flying P-38 is one of the rarest surviving World War II aircraft, and here was a great example. Best of all, we had it all to ourselves!
In the corner was a Grumman Wildcat – wings folded. In the other corner was his latest restoration project – a Curtiss dive bomber fuselage with engine mated. Numerous drop tanks and other aircraft parts were hung from the ceiling.
We could have stayed longer, but there was so much more to see! We postponed seeing the hangar at the entrance; we would see it on the way out, instead. We went instead to the main hangar, where I showed Maryalice and Ken some of the rest of the collection.
We had to stop our tour several times to watch Evan Fagen on a P-51 test flight. (It’s every pilot’s DUTY to stop and watch an aircraft overhead!) Ron came over to describe the hangar in detail.
“During the recession, we had some slack time. Rather than lay anybody off, I asked my engineers to design a windproof and tornado-proof building – something to preserve these treasured aircraft, and by the way, make it LOOK like a World War II hangar.” The hangar, itself, is a thing of beauty!
Inside was a perfectly polished P-51 named “Twilight Tear,” along with yet another P-40…the aircraft flying that day would be pushed back inside later. The walls were adorned with hand-painted World War II scenes. The museum is much more than an airplane museum; there were exhibits of World War II Jeeps, halftracks, machine gun emplacements, command and communication radios, a diorama of the airborne Normandy landings (complete with parachutists), and my favorite display, a full-sized display of soldiers hitting Utah Beach during the Normandy landings.
The diorama is striking. The entire back of the hangar is a painting of the beach landing, looking out to sea. Front and center is a re-creation of the front ramp of an LCVP – the famed “Higgens Boat” for amphibious assaults used to land troops and light vehicles – one of the innovations credited as the most important in winning World War II. Coming down the open ramp to “hit the beach” at Utah Beach are twelve bronze soldiers, including Ron’s dad, Ray Fagen. (Ray was not injured on Utah Beach, or in the fighting to liberate Paris, but did receive a Purple Heart for fighting in the Ardennes Forest, Bastogne). Even the sand in the display was real. Ron had the actual sand shipped in! It’s one of the most evocative displays I’ve ever encountered. THANK YOU, Ray Fagen, for your service, and thank YOU, Ron, for creating this memorial to inspire all of us!
After spending more time in the research library above the rear of the hangar, I again caught up with Ron to ask him about his latest hangar, built since my last visit. I was only looking for a brief description, but Ron took us in tow and walked us through the hangar, from rear to the opening. Inside the back door was an old RAILROAD CAR! I noticed that it had European couplings on it (not the “knuckle couplings” as in the U.S.), so I had an idea of what was coming next. Ron read my thoughts. “Yes, it is the ‘cattle car’ (also called ‘40 and 8s’ – 40 people or 8 horses) used during the Holocaust.”
I asked how he acquired it. “We wanted to do a display on WHY we fought the war. There was a railroad station in Germany…the tracks had been bombed and torn up late in the war and never rebuilt, so the car was still at the old station after all these years…we had it shipped over here!” He pointed out the louvres in the sides; they were not enough to provide ventilation when the cars were overcrowded. The cars were also used to transport prisoners, either Allied POWs or people to work the death camps. The display might be controversial, but it was a part of the war – something we were trying to stop.
Not everything in this museum involves aviation, but our aircraft did help in stopping this tragedy.
There are a number of aircraft inside the World War II-looking hangar…familiar aircraft like the BT-13, and Fairchild Primary Trainers (PT-19 and 26). There are also vehicles: jeeps, and the last intact World War II tank destroyer vehicle. Along the walls, recessed windows on one side chronicle the progress of the war. On the other, artifacts of the war, and aircraft and ship models help put the experience in context. The centerpiece of the hangar, however, is a beautifully restored B-25 Mitchell bomber. Most pilots associate the B-25 as the bombers flown from the deck of the aircraft carrier Hornet on the “Doolittle Raid” that bombed Tokyo, letting Japan know that the U.S. would seek vengeance for the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor that started the war, and that contrary to the promises of Japanese leaders, Japan would pay a price.
This aircraft is beautiful, inside and out. The outside is configured with a bombardier’s nose for dropping bombs (the versatile B-25 often had a “gun nose” with eight guns). In addition to the bomber nose, this one has four “cheek blisters” for forward-firing machine guns. Since it is an operating aircraft, it isn’t normally open inside to the public. “Would you like to get up in it?” Ron asked. The words were still hanging in the air by the time I crawled through the bomb bay doors and up the ladder to the cockpit. The cockpit was immaculate – fitted out with modern avionics – every placard marked and unscratched, it looked just like it came off the factory floor. I wondered if it flew. Ron answered, “Our pilot took a check-ride just last week. It’s got a schedule of appearances booked.” What a machine!
As we left the hangar, I took advantage one more time of Ron’s hospitality, and asked if we might see the restoration shop. He walked us right over. Inside was all of the metal-working equipment you would ever need (much of it from North Central/Northwest Airlines). They were in the process of building up yet another P-40 wing.
“This one came from the jungles of New Guinea,” Ron explained. “We had to rebuild much of the wing skins due to corrosion, but there was enough there to provide a pattern. We have been able to clean up many of the original fittings,” he said, as he showed us some unrestored and restored fittings. “This aircraft will be so authentic that it will even have functioning guns.”
We let Ron get back to his family, and re-crossed the ramp to take in the World War II-era control tower. Though the cab was closed for renovation, I have been there before. It is nicely restored, right down to the correct radio and communications equipment for the era. Below, we visited the Quonset hut used as a briefing room for fighter pilots in England – an exact copy of original photos – as used by World War II ace Bud Anderson. New this year are replica German gun batteries of the Normandy invasion, located at Longues-sur-Mer, France. I’ve been there; the gun batteries are accurate.
We re-crossed the ramp one more time to view the entrance building on our way out. It houses Ray Fagen’s immaculately restored Ercoupe, but the centerpiece of the display is the Waco CG-4A combat assault glider. I had covered the progress of the glider project when it was built-restored in Minneapolis. The Fagen Fighters WWII Museum has the glider on long-term loan; a way for people to see and appreciate part of Minnesota’s contribution to the war effort. Though nine contractors built the gliders during the war, Minneapolis very nearly eclipsed Ford Motor as the largest manufacturer. The huge glider is displayed so that visitors can admire the workmanship of the aircraft made famous by carrying airborne troops, supplies, guns, and jeeps into the Normandy and Operation Market Garden battles. Alongside is a Cushman motor scooter used by airborne troops, a Harley military motorcycle, a “half-track” with anti-aircraft guns, a Curtiss Jenny from World War I, and a Ryan PT-22 trainer. We finished right at closing time – WHEW! This is why I like this museum.
It’s true that you could probably see some of these aircraft in other museums, but they wouldn’t likely be flyable. It’s also true that you could see many of these airplanes at air shows like Oshkosh, but you couldn’t get up close, and you would have to battle crowds of people for a few seconds of time to admire the machines and to reflect on what they meant. Instead, this is a unique opportunity. How many times have you wanted to get “behind the scenes” in a museum to see how the exhibit was produced, to feel the passion the staff has put into displaying the artifact, to ask questions of the staff, to get the inside scoop on the artifact on display? Visiting the Fagen Fighters WWII Museum may satisfy that desire, but if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself going back to learn more, and as I did, taking your friends to see it.
The Fagen Fighters WWII Museum is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. The website is http://www.fagenfighterswwiimuseum.org/index.html
HERE’S A TIP: For the very best experience, get 10 or more people together to arrange a private guided tour. You’ll enjoy it more, and there is no extra charge. Call 320-564-6644. Private tours must be arranged in advance.
Since these are FLYING airplanes, some may be out on tour. Be sure to check their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/FagenFighterswwiiMuseum
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson is the long-time fixed base operator at Albert Lea, Minnesota. Flying for 54 years, Jim is something of a museum piece himself! If you would like to bring him back to the modern world, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at his airport office at 507-373-0608, but be careful if he starts to reminisce about the “good old days!”