After two decades in Duluth, the Commemorative Air Force Lake Superior Squadron 101 made the jump to Superior last month. The move meant squeezing into less space and splitting the squadron into two units, but it offered a chance to grow.
"Moving here we got a building that, while it's a tight fit - it's a quarter of the size of the old building - is in much better shape," Col. Brian Miller said. "Which means that we can focus on what we're supposed to be doing. Also, it's on an airport that's far better suited for the needs of our organization."
Instead of the strict post- 9/11 security at the business-oriented Duluth International Airport, the Richard I. Bong Municipal Airport is more open to the small community events - pancake breakfasts, fly-ins, school tours, hangar dances - that fund the CAF's work and bring in volunteers.
"It's been a great move," Executive Officer DeWayne Tomasek said.
The airport is also home to the Civil Air Patrol and Experimental Aviation Association Duluth-Superior Chapter 272. That leads to possible cross-pollination.
"Anything that brings more people and more interest to the aviation community is going to be good for any of our organizations," Miller said.
The CAF has leased the bottom of the original brick terminal building at the airport, erected in 1937, and is working on upgrading fire safety, hangar doors and making the building handicapped accessible so it can open it as a museum to the public - maybe as soon as this summer, Miller said.
The mission of the CAF, an international organization run by volunteers, is to bring flying time capsules back to life.
"Our mission statement is to educate, to restore, to maintain and to fly World War II aircraft," Tomasek said.
"We've always been known for having a really nice museum, and the museum's an important part of the Commemorative Air Force, but it usually starts with telling the story through the aircraft," Miller said.
Currently, the squadron is mixing the pieces of two PBY Catalinas into one functioning aircraft and restoring a small general utility marine airplane called the OY-2.
"It's our responsibility to get these two aircraft back in the air," Tomasek said.
The PBY was a World War II workhorse that served as a search and rescue craft, participated in low-level bombing raids, flew reconnaissance and stopped German and Japanese submarines. Most famously, it was the U.S. Navy crew of a PBY that spotted the Japanese fleet at Midway and helped turn the tide of the war in the Pacific.
"They're amazing airplanes," Miller said. "They served a huge amount of roles."
To keep the CAF in the public eye, the squadron has also set up a year-long exhibit at the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center. It includes one of the largest collections of German Luftwaffe uniforms in the Midwest and one of the largest military pin collections assembled, according to Hayes Scriven, executive director of the center.
Also on display is a fur lap robe German military leader Hermann Goring was using when he was captured - an item Tomasek said the Smithsonian has been after for years - and a Waffen SS Viking Division ring.
"It's just a different story," Scriven said. "There's German, there's Russian, so it tells a different side of the story in there. It's just such an eclectic collection, for us to be able to show it and tell people about it is really cool."
Two weeks after the exhibit's Oct. 25 opening, Tomasek said they had run out of CAF brochures and business cards at the site. The move to Superior has been welcoming.
"More personal contact," Tomasek said. "We're easier to find. We have more exposure."
And they're seeking more volunteers to help with their mission.
Whether they're a fan of planes or history or bringing a vintage piece of equipment back to life, the CAF has need of them.
"People can come here and just pick out a project that they'd be interested in working on," Miller said. "We have plenty of people who started working on the aircraft with little or no experience under the guidance of a professional and have picked up skills and things like that that they otherwise would never have gotten to learn or experience."
Bob Saunders, a Superior native who now lives in Hermantown, sorted uniforms and cleaned the airport terminal building Nov. 14.
"That is so often what we need the most of is people that can just do whatever we need help with," Miller said.
When he started volunteering a year and a half ago, Saunders found a link to his own past in one of the CAF's Link Trainers.
The Link Trainer, also known as the Blue Box, was the world's first commercially built flight simulator. Produced in the early 1930s, these advanced simulators were a key pilot training aid during World War II.
"My father was in the Army Air Corps and he came to Superior to train as a pilot," Saunders said. "So I'm working on this and I made the comment to Brian, 'You know, my father would have trained in something like this,' and then Brian said, 'I think this one came from Superior.'
"That means in 1942, when he was 18 or 19 years old, my father most likely trained in that flight simulator," Saunders said. "And I got to sand it and paint it. That's just incredible. That's just incredible to reach back in time to when my dad was 18."
If somebody has an occasional two hours to give, Saunders said, they can help bring history to life.
Visit the group's Facebook page or cafduluth.com for more information.