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History Lessons Take Flight — Bomber-style

Not many students finish the school year with a ride on a B-17 bomber, but that’s exactly what sophomore AP history students did. The plane ride was part of a trip that included talking to veterans at the Yankee Air Museum at the historic Willow Run Bomber Plant site in Ypsilanti.

Connecting students with veterans was the goal for history teacher Joel Diekevers. “It makes them realize that the reason we have such a great country is because we have had millions of men and women willing to defend our freedoms,” he said.

Inside the plane were plenty of opportunities for pictures of things students had never seen before

It was also what the anonymous donor who’s associated with the museum and paid for the trip wanted. “He’s passionate about airplanes and veterans,” Diekevers said. “His biggest passion is putting kids in front of veterans.”

One of the favorite quotes the class heard was from a WWII veteran, Diekevers said. “(He) told one of my students during an interview ‘to look around and say to yourself, who got me all this and what price did they pay?’ ”

Students described the ride on the restored “Yankee Lady” as loud, cramped and a bit scary. Guns lined the inside walls of the plane (they weren’t loaded), and students grabbed hold ofthem sometimes to keep steady. They were warned not to pull on a cable above their head and told to be careful when they walked over the doors where the bombs came out. The doors were shut, but you didn’t want to take any chances of falling out, they were told.

If that’s not enough to make one nervous, how about sitting in the tight nose of the small plane with only Plexiglas in front of you while looking out at the world 1,200 feet below going past you at 150 mph?

“When the only thing between you and Mother Earth is glass, it’s scary,” Diekevers said.

For student Matthew Dixon, the ride was too shaky. “I know it was sturdy, but I didn’t know how sturdy,” he said.

When the plane reached cruising speed, students got to take off their seat belts and move around the flight deck, bomb bay, radio room and waist gunner section.

While the plane ride was exciting, talking to the veterans who served in several different wars “was awesome,” Matthew said.

Added student Tyler DeGraaf, “It was a cool way to end the year, connecting us to what we spent so much time learning about.”

Caledonia students Parker Lee and Zach Kostelec buckle up before their flight on the B-17 bomber

All of Diekevers’ AP history students have to interview a veteran as the final class requirement. The interviews will be sent to Grand Valley State University’s Veteran History Project, and some of those will go on to the Library of Congress. By the end of this school year, more than 500 of Diekevers’ students will have submitted videos to the project over the four years the classes have been visiting the museum and riding on the plane.

“There are nine working B-17’s and only five that are certified by the FAA for rides, so for Caledonia to have nearly 100 students who have flown in a B-17 is remarkable,” Diekevers said.

The Yankee Air Museum is in the midst of renovating the nearby Willow Run Bomber Plant, which was built in 1941 and at its peak produced 650 bombers a year. The plant became famous during World War II for building B-24s, and for employing women who became known as Rosie the Riveters. Earlier this year, the first three aircraft were moved into the plant for display, and the museum is expected to open by 2018. STEM learning opportunities will be built into some of the exhibits.

If you go there hoping take a ride on a plane like the Caledonia students, it will costs about $500 a person.


Yankee Air Museum

Grand Valley State Univeristy Veterans History Project

Lining up below the B-17
Lining up below the B-17

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.


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