Over the last four decades, if you’ve seen a World War II aircraft actually in flight, chances are pretty good that the Collings Foundation in Stow, Massachusetts had something to do with it. Wednesday, the town Planning board voted 3-to-2 that the Foundation’s living history events, tours, exhibitions and veteran roundtable discussions are not educational, and thereby denied it a permit to expand. The Building Department also issued a cease and desist order against the Foundation on March 26, 2015 prohibiting take-offs and landings from the airstrip it has maintained and flown from for 37 years.
The Collings Foundation’s issues with the town stretch back a few years now. Last year, the Milford Daily News reported that neighbors in the area were protesting with lawn signs when the Foundation indicated that it would be expanding its operation on its 100 acre property to include a 66,000 square foot building to house parts of the rare Jacques Littlefield collection, which included 240 tanks and military vehicles.
Throughout the year, the Foundation operates as an educational facility, touring school groups, partnering with local schools and hosting veteran roundtable discussions to educate the public about the vehicles and aircraft in its collection. It’s also an internationally recognized restorer of vintage military aircraft that has undertaken and completed more restoration projects than either the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) or the United States Air Force Museum.
The Foundation holds 25 events throughout the year, open house events three times a year, and tours of the collection from May to October by appointment.
The Foundation hoped that the expanded museum would house about 80 vehicles, including a World War II-era German Panther tank that will be the only one of its kind on display in the western hemisphere.
The conflict with the town arose because the Foundation’s 100-acre parcel of land is zoned as residential. However, under the Massachusetts Dover Amendment, a “nonprofit educational corporation” can be exempt from certain zoning regulations, provided that the actual use of a particular facility has education as the “primary or dominant purpose.”
The Stow Independent covered the meeting this week. “I do not believe any of these programs they plan to offer meet the Dover definition of education,” declared the Board’s Ernie Dodd. “How does it fit into the curriculum of visiting schools’ programs? The exception that Dover gives to educational institutions is just not there.” The Board’s Margaret Costello agreed, noting, “There’s no concrete tie-in with a curriculum.”
In keeping with its charter to educate the public about the history of 20th century warfare, the Collings Foundation has toured World War II aircraft around the country continuously. The Wings of Freedom Nationwide Tour is a living history display of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator, and North American B-25 Mitchell.
Over the last three decades, the Wings of Freedom tour has made more than 2,900 visits to airports across the country, including Alaska. The Foundation estimates that more than 3.5 million people see these fully restored historic aircraft every year.
The Wings of Freedom Tour puts Americans in close contact with these aircraft, typically for $12 for adults and $6 for children under 12. In addition, the Foundation will take spectators on a 30 minute flight for $450, or longer training session for additional fees. The fees are all directed back to the Foundation’s operation and programs.
To get an idea of what the Wings of Freedom Tour is all about, watch this segment from AVWeb on the tour at Carlsbad, California’s Palomar Airport, where the last flying B-24 Liberator from the Foundation’s collection was on display:
Three times a year, the Foundation operates an open house at its Stow facility, Father’s Day being the most popular event. The Foundation runs battle re-enactments, short flights of display aircraft and a military vehicle show on the grounds.
The Foundation’s events are popular, but they’re far from Foxboro-Stadium-on-a-Sunday-in-the-Fall popular. The highest attendance ever recorded — according to founder Bob Collings’ testimony at a Planning Board meeting in 2014 — was the Father’s Day event in 2006 with 2,686 people, and 1,075 cars. That’s about what you’d see at a decent-sized high school graduation.
The Foundation also runs an event called the “Race of the Century” which pits a PT-17 Stearman trainer against a 1930s sprint car, in the slowest drag race you’re ever likely to see:
The dispute with the town was whether the Foundation actually is in keeping with its mission as an educational foundation. Nearby resident Janet Belsky noted in 2014 meeting minutes from the Town of Stow Planning board that “from 2000 to 2012 the [IRS] 990 forms submitted by the Collings Foundation document that the foundation has recorded donations and charitable events that do not represent educational priorities.”
As you can see in the video, the Collings Foundation puts on a kid-friendly event that attracts young kids and their parents, which seems a lot more educational than watching a mothballed aircraft gather dust. “There’s always an argument of whether it’s entertainment or education – often-times, it has to be both,” Rob Collings, Jr. the Foundation’s executive director said. “With today’s generation, you have to give them something more interactive, and this is it.”
The Stow Planning Board received a petition in support of the Foundation prior to the meeting, with more than 1,100 signatures. However, the Board’s Ernie Dodd contended, “I’m not sure it has any bearing on the issue whatsoever. It would have more meaning for me if they came primarily from Stow residents, which they did not.”
For the neighbors’ part, they’re not interested in seeing the Foundation continue in its present location. Barton Road resident Mike Schultz told the Milford Daily News,”He could open a tank museum at Fort Devens,” the now-defunct former Army base in Ayer, 20 miles west of Stow. “This is not the place.”
It probably bears mentioning that Schultz purchased the house on Barton Road in 2009, approximately 30 years after the Collings Foundation began its work in Stow.