Museum founder recruits a world-class proponent

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  • LISA JAMES/Press Richard Le Francis poses with the statue of local World War II hero Pappy Boyington at the Pappy Boyington Airfield in Hayden. Le Francis, who started the Pappy Boyington Museum at the airport in 2010, was also a co-sculptor of the statue. The museum lost its lease this year and is looking to relocate to a larger space where the museum will expand into the Rutan Air and Space Center, a world-class education center.

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    LISA JAMES/Press Richard LeFrancis, who started the Pappy Boyington Museum at the Pappy Boyington Airfield in Hayden in 2010, stands in front of the lot where they are hoping to build their new museum. After losing their lease this year, the museum is looking to relocate into a larger space where they can expand into the Rutan Air and Space Center, a world-class education center.

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    Photo by MIKE SATREN Burt Rutan performs pre-prep on Sunday, April 23, 2017, for a taxi-test of an airplane with new tricycle tretractable landing gear.

  • LISA JAMES/Press Richard Le Francis poses with the statue of local World War II hero Pappy Boyington at the Pappy Boyington Airfield in Hayden. Le Francis, who started the Pappy Boyington Museum at the airport in 2010, was also a co-sculptor of the statue. The museum lost its lease this year and is looking to relocate to a larger space where the museum will expand into the Rutan Air and Space Center, a world-class education center.

  • 1

    LISA JAMES/Press Richard LeFrancis, who started the Pappy Boyington Museum at the Pappy Boyington Airfield in Hayden in 2010, stands in front of the lot where they are hoping to build their new museum. After losing their lease this year, the museum is looking to relocate into a larger space where they can expand into the Rutan Air and Space Center, a world-class education center.

  • 2

    Photo by MIKE SATREN Burt Rutan performs pre-prep on Sunday, April 23, 2017, for a taxi-test of an airplane with new tricycle tretractable landing gear.

HAYDEN — Richard Le Francis refuses to let his museum go down.

Instead, he’s doubling down.

Perhaps you found your way to the Pappy Boyington Field Museum on west Wyoming Avenue at some point in the last few years.

If you enjoyed it and plan on a return visit, though, you’ll have to do it online.

The museum named for the Coeur d’Alene area’s most famous aviator — Medal of Honor recipient and World War II ace Pappy Boyington of the famed “Black Sheep Squadron” — now exists only in virtual reality.

Le Francis put blood, sweat and tears — not to mention bucks — into the museum project, from leasing a building on the Fraternal Order of Eagles property, then opening in 2012, to finally being turfed out with a lease expiration this past February.

All those spectacular artifacts are stuck in a warehouse.

Yet he’s more fired up than ever, and that’s saying something for the mega-energy guy.

Here’s all Le Francis cares to say about leaving the Eagles’ parking lot: “Last year (2016), we had about a thousand visitors — without any signs, on someone else’s property, with almost no marketing — and we just about broke even.

“Museums normally take 25 years to become actual destinations with valuable displays. We did it in a lot less than that.”

And now?

Le Francis is glad you asked, because he’s managed to land another Coeur d’Alene aviation superstar — legendary aircraft designer and aerospace engineer Burt Rutan — as an advocate.

Since moving here six years ago, Rutan has done something that would have been unthinkable over the past few decades: He’s given speeches for free.

“Normally I do get paid to appear,” Rutan said, as modestly as possible. “But my wife (Tonya) and I have made this our home. We want to be part of the community and know our neighbors.”

It’s no surprise that Rutan has been in demand.

This is a man with six of his original-design planes and one spacecraft on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.

He was named one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time magazine in 2004, and nine years after that — at the age of 70 — Flying magazine listed him at No. 18 among its “51 Heroes of Aviation.”

He designed the ultra-light Rutan Voyager, in which his brother Dick and co-pilot Jeana Yeager in 1986 became the first to fly non-stop and unfueled around the world.

Burt Rutan has won the Collier Trophy (American aviation’s highest honor) twice and 18 years apart — for the Voyager in ’86 and in 2004 for designing SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded craft to enter the realm of space twice within a two-week period.

And by the way, other winners include Orville Wright, Howard Hughes and the crew of Apollo 11, which gave the world Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon.

It’s not your everyday award, and Rutan was the first double winner since 1923.

“In aviation, there’s nothing he hasn’t done,” Le Francis said. “He’s designed 46 different, unique airplanes, and a successful space craft.

“The people he knows and deals with are, like, Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Paul Allen (the co-founder of Microsoft who partnered with Rutan on the space venture).”

However, the most intriguing item on Rutan’s resume — at least in this region — may be yet to come.

Le Francis has designs on a bigger, more stunning museum. He even has his eye on a 20,000-square-foot building at the airport complex, with the idea of creating a combination museum and learning center.

“Eventually there also will be a café and meeting space, which are both very badly needed in this area of town,” he said.

Le Francis’ voice nearly shivers with anticipation, simply because Rutan wants to help him.

“He’s said we can use his name while looking for funding,” Le Francis said. “And it would be hard to find a bigger name in aviation.”

In fact, Rutan intends to offer more than his name.

“I’ll be really busy until the end of this summer,” he said. “I’m designing one more plane at my company down in California, and I want to get it done while I can still fly it.

“But after that, I would be happy to work with Richard on the whole concept. I really like having a learning center, where STEM education can be important at a time when engineers are in short supply.

“We need people to work with technology, and the Coeur d’Alene area can be a hub for that.”

Rutan clearly could be a game-changer.

“It means everything to have Burt involved,” Le Francis said. “Maybe we can find the backing — from a family trust or a corporation — to buy that building, or purchase some property nearby for our own, specially designed facility.

“But we’re not tied to a location. We committed to this concept of putting the museum together with a learning center.

“Each part of it is exciting. We have plenty of wonderful items from the previous museum, and we’re getting more all the time.”

It’s hardly a shock that Le Francis has come up with a potential name for this dream facility, even if it might be somewhere between two and five years in the distance.

The Rutan Air and Space Learning Center and Pappy Boyington Veterans Museum.

“It does sound good, doesn’t it?” he said.

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