History Lessons

Larry Kelley ensures that the accomplishments and sacrifices of The Greatest Generation live on at the Delaware Aviation Museum

Story by Joe Willey    |    Photography by Grant L. Gursky

To many, history belongs behind glass, on an eggshell-white pedestal waiting for occasional glances from the interested. But for Larry Kelley, the cofounder and executive director of the Delaware Aviation Museum Foundation, flying a sleek, vintage aircraft across wide-open skies is the only way to preserve the history he loves and pass its lessons on to other generations.

Flying has been a singular passion of Kelley’s since he was 9 years old. It was then, in 1957, that he helped his uncle rebuild a wrecked plane and dreamed of becoming a pilot. But it was not until 30 years later that he bought the plane that would bring his love of aircraft and growing interest in history together — a Cessna UC-78. The aircraft dates from 1943 and was used as an Army-Air Force pilot trainer. After an extensive restoration, Kelley flew the now-like-new Cessna to airshows. The airplane served as an introduction to many WWII veterans familiar with the UC-78, and they shared their own flight stories. These unplanned connections and conversations fueled Kelley’s passion for preserving the history of the era and inadvertently laid the foundation for the Delaware Aviation Museum.

Kelley’s collection, included in the museum, began with memorabilia, including “many, many uniforms,” a voluminous aviation library and other wheeled vehicles, like a 1945 Jeep and a Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) motorcycle used in the European Theater. But the cornerstone aircraft of the museum, and Kelley’s most-prized plane, is a gleaming B-25J, christened Panchito. The B-25 is the medium-range bomber made famous by the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April of 1942, proving that America had entered the war in the Pacific in deadly earnest. Whenever the B-25’s gleaming silver fuselage soars through the air overhead, it is a testament to the beauty and deadliness of another era. Each flight is also a poignant reminder of sacrifice and loss. “Every time I fly the B-25, I think about all the young men who climbed in but never climbed out,” Larry said, his voice strained with emotion.

Educating the general public about not only “the tools of the Greatest Generation” but also the people who used them is the heartbeat of the Delaware Aviation Museum Foundation’s mission. The museum is alive. Unique flight adventures, pilot training and the ground school offered by the museum are a visceral experience that ignites a passion for preserving the memory of a time that turned the tide of the 20th century and the selfless character of a generation.

Vehicle photo courtesy Rob Blasdel

GRAND ENTRANCE Members of the US Naval Academy Parachute Team arrived in style during Wings and Wheels 2019. The widely popular event is scheduled for October 1-2, 2021 at the Georgetown Airport.

Kelley’s passion for the past is also flying high into the future. Education is a lifestyle for him, and he is convinced that the history he cherishes will be a source of inspiration for new generations who long to fly. As such, the museum is currently developing STEM projects for high school students and facilitating Zoom calls with school groups of 12-to-15-year-olds, making them aware of local opportunities in the aircraft industry. The always-anticipated Wings and Wheels event at the beginning of each October draws appreciative crowds and provides the opportunity to hear speakers that capture the enthusiasm and ethos of the museum.

For Larry Kelley and the Delaware Aviation Museum Foundation, preserving history is found in the bellow of a vintage WWII aircraft. But the sound that resonates through his body each time he lifts off is also the sound that is calling others to remember history and pass their passion into the future.

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