VIRGINIA BEACH — South of this city’s suburbia stands a sprawling monument to the warbirds of yesteryear.
Hidden by trees and surrounded by the farmland of Pungo is the Military Aviation Museum, home to one of the largest private collections of World War I- and World War II-era military aircraft in the world, according to the museum.
Founded in 2008, the private museum houses the collection of Jerry Yagen, who is also the owner of the museum. Yagen made his fortune in the for-profit college industry, founding Centura College, Tidewater Tech and the Aviation Institute of Maintenance, all of which have locations in Hampton Roads.
“That is where he made his fortune,” said Mitchell Welch, spokesman for the museum. “He has invested a lot of that into this museum, which is his true passion.”
Yagen was not immediately available to discuss his collection.
Yagen owns more than 20 trade schools throughout the country that provide training in the nursing, mechanic and welding fields. But an early love of airplanes is what lead to his hobby of collecting vintage airplanes.
Dozens of WWI and WWII aircraft are stored in galleries and hangers that allow people to get to know these vintage airplanes better. There are no ropes separating guests from the planes and visitors are encouraged to get close to the aircraft, take pictures, and if they’re tall enough, peek inside.
During a recent open house at the museum, a reporter from Southside Daily was given a ride over the Pungo area by one of the museum’s volunteer pilots. Some pilots are current or former military, while others are commercial pilots, or people who just do it for fun.
Not all pilots fly every aircraft, but chief pilot Mike Spalding, a corporate pilot, has flown every available aircraft at the museum.
“All airplanes need the same things; airspeed, altitude, gas,” Spalding said, “but some aircraft are like combinations of several different planes with different handling and requirements for take off and landing” which is why every pilot doesn’t necessarily fly every plane.
Spalding recruits other volunteer pilots to come fly the vintage collection at the museum, Welch said.
Spalding is well-connected in the vintage warbird world, Welch said, and he sources pilots that he feels are competent.
“It takes thousands of hours in order to fly these types of planes,” Welch said. “And Mike knows exactly what to look for.”
His name is ‘Boom’
One of those pilots is Boom Powell, who has been a volunteer pilot for the museum for the last five years.
Powell is a Vietnam War veteran whose father was a WWII B-24 pilot. He was also a flight instructor while in the military. Powell worked as a commercial pilot for PanAm and Atlas Air after retiring as a commander.
His son, “Rickster,” is a professional skydiver.
“You could say that being in the sky runs in my family,” Powell said.
Powell has also written two books about combat aircraft and is the unofficial plane historian at the museum, although all pilots there have a strong grasp of the history of flight.
In June 2016, C-SPAN filmed a local history segment on the museum, and Powell led viewers on a tour of the museum in the program.
Powell said that just seeing these planes can be painful for some service members, who may not have seen those aircraft since they were in war. But preserving these aircraft is less about the material of the planes and more about the history of the people who flew them.
“As the greatest generation dies off, these planes will become their legacy,” Powell said.