By S. Clayton Moore
Many pilots dream of aviation, but not everyone is willing to share their dream like aviator, collector, philanthropist and businessman Robert J. Pond, who has capitalized on his enormous business success by using his fortune to protect America’s aviation heritage. The Palm Springs Air Museum, located at Palm Springs Regional Airport, is home to his legendary collection of World War II aircraft, automobiles and aviation artifacts.
A World War II veteran who has flown a wide variety of military aircraft, Pond is deeply committed to the preservation of that war’s aircraft and the museum’s continuing efforts to honor the sacrifices of his contemporaries and to educate children and families about World War II.
The museum, which opened in 1996, is unique in many ways. Many of the volunteers who work at the 67,000-square-foot museum are veterans themselves, as well as pilots who have flown the planes on display. Also, 17 of the museum’s 27 aircraft still fly, including Pond’s treasured P-51 Mustang, a P-38 Lightning, a radically restored B-17 bomber named “Miss Angela,” and a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.
While there are about 300 air museums in the U.S., the Palm Springs Air Museum is one of less than a dozen still flying aircraft after the radical fuel and insurance hikes that followed September 11.
“You can show them to a thousand times as many people if you can get them in the air,” Pond says firmly. “You can take them to other places and just the fact that they’re in the air gives them much greater exposure. They’re not all airworthy, but we have enough that we can get in and fly every day of the week if we want to.”
Born in Edina, Minn., in May 1924, Pond became fascinated by the growing field of aviation as a child.
“By age 10, I was interested in airplanes and started making models,” Pond said.
In 1935, he got to take his first ride at the rough-hewn airport in Chicago that would become Meigs Field.
“My dad took me to Chicago,” he said. “I remember it so well. In the process of enjoying the ride in the copilot’s seat, I stuck my arm out the window and just about lost it! That was my indoctrination into real flying, and it’s been part of my life ever since.”
Pond graduated from Shattuck Military School in Faribault, Minn., in 1942, just as World War II was in full swing. Over his parents’ protests, he signed up for the Navy Air Corps program and entered the service on Dec. 7, 1942.
“It wasn’t easy,” he recalled. “I had to threaten that I was going to join the Army; it was a bit of a devious way for me to sign up for the Air Corps. Several of my friends had joined the Navy and it seemed like the right thing to do. It was just at the very beginning, when they would let 18 year olds join the Air Corps. I got in just under the wire, as did George Bush (Sr.), who is 38 days younger than I am, but he actually got into the training about six months earlier than I did. I guess he didn’t have trouble with his parents.”
Pond trained hard in the naval aviation program, learning about engines, aircraft, navigation and finally flying, training at Albert Lee, Minn., in a J-3 Piper Cub identical to one in the Palm Springs Air Museum today. From there, he went on to survival training in Iowa and finally to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he learned to fly multi-engine aircraft and earned his wings.
By 1944, Ensign Pond was stationed in Florida, where he learned carrier tactics and landings. He also got to fly a variety of bombers and other multi-engine military aircraft ranging from the PBY4, a Navy version of the B-24 bomber, to the PBY Catalina to the JM1 floater seaplane. He was scheduled to head out to Honolulu on July 4, 1945, but by then, the war had ended. He badly wanted to become a commercial pilot, but life took him down a different path.
“People coming out of the Navy didn’t know anything but going back to school or getting a flying job, but I didn’t particularly want to be a barnstormer,” Pond said. “Most of us were interested in getting into commercial aviation. The airplanes that the airlines were just beginning to buy were wonderful, but I managed to talk myself out of it. I went back to school, but all the time I had my eye out for anything that was connected to aviation.”
Sailing to success
Pond graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1948 with a bachelor’s in business administration and wandered into a family business started by his grandfather in 1910. Advance Machine Company initially made floor scrubbers and vacuum cleaners, and eventually moved into manufacturing the floor-polishing machines essential to cleaning industrial and commercial floors in supermarkets, schools and other institutions.
Pond started as the bookkeeper and then moved into sales and up into management. As CEO, he built the company into one of the world’s largest manufacturers of floor-cleaning equipment. A heavy proponent of technological innovation and inventive marketing, Pond also used good old face-to-face contact with his distributors to keep in touch and maintain loyalty among the company’s customer base.
“Aviation had a lot to do with our success,” Pond affirmed. “There were a lot of benefits in that ability to get from point A to point B. Sometimes I would have to get from Minneapolis to Sioux Falls to Lincoln and back to Omaha. If you tried to do that driving a car, it would take weeks.”
The company expanded radically in the 1970s to the point that there was hardly a supermarket in the country that wasn’t using an Advance Machine floor cleaner. By the time he retired in 1989, Pond had grown the business so much that companies in over 80 countries around the world had connections to the Advance Machine Company. Still, he recalls that praise from his father, a talented engineer, was rare.
“Anytime I was looking for a pat on the back, my dad would always say, ‘I expected you to get it done. You had a better education and you’re smarter than I am,'” he recalled. “I’m not sure he meant it, because he was a pretty smart guy himself.”
Pond recalled that although his father didn’t mind flying for business himself, he wasn’t happy about his son’s love of constantly faster airplanes.
“We incorporated aviation into our business very early, but it was almost over my dad’s body. He wasn’t frightened of airplanes because he did use them, but he didn’t like his son flying them. He wanted me in that business, and not, as he would say, getting killed out there, flying those damned airplanes,” Pond chuckled.
That business, now named Nilfisk-Advance, was acquired in a merger in 1994.
Pond has amassed more than 22,000 hours in over 60 years of flying.
“I have more certificates than you can shake a stick at,” he said.
Although he’s had a few scrapes—some off-airport landings and a couple of engine failures—he says he’s been pretty lucky.
“These are the things that happen if you fly enough 60-year-old airplanes, but I’ve never so much as gotten a bruise in an airplane,” Pond said.
He began his legendary collection of warbirds and other military aircraft in 1970.
“I ran into a retiring Northwest Airlines pilot who had rebuilt the P-40 Warhawk and P-51 Mustang that are in the museum today,” Pond recalled. “He was retiring and wanted to work out a deal to sell them. My only condition was that I would pay his price, but I wanted terms that were very liberal. I bought the planes and he checked me out in them, but he also continued to fly them himself. The two of us had an awful lot of fun in those planes.”
Over the years, the collection expanded. Leaning heavily towards Navy aircraft, naturally, he has a number of Grumman airplanes including a TBM Avenger, F7F-3 Tigercat and F4F Wildcat. Also in the collection are a B-17 Flying Fortress, a Bell P-63 Kingcobra, a Supermarine Spitfire, and two Douglas A-26C Invaders. His B-25T Mitchell is one of the most flown aircraft in the collection and appeared in the films “Forever Young” and “Pearl Harbor.”
Even though it’s not Navy, Pond still loves his P-51D Mustang, “Mighty Moose,” whose former duty was with the Kentucky National Guard.
“The P-51, even though it’s really an Air Force airplane, is still the last word in airplanes, as far as I’m concerned. The P-38 is certainly a close second, but there’s nothing quite like flying that Mustang,” Pond said.
He also has a soft spot for the rugged B-17, “Miss Angela,” which was a longtime fire bomber during the 1960s. The museum has restored the plane to its war condition and given it the marks of the 34th Bomber Group, 8th Air Force, 1945.
“We were trained in that aircraft by the very best people that we could find,” Pond recalled. “We spent a bunch of money on getting it to be as good as or better than any B-17 flying today. I flew it for about five years; now we have two other pilots who are just as good as I am and are better for the museum’s purposes.”
Palm Springs was not his first involvement in showing the collection to the public. Early on, he helped establish the Planes of Fame museum at Flying Cloud Field in Eden Prairie, Minn., but the museum closed in 1997.
“Planes of Fame was very successful and we had a lot of visitors, but we didn’t get the kind of cooperation from the city and county that would allow us the kind of flying we wanted to do,” Pond said.
The Pond Racer
One of Pond’s interests in aircraft and a primary motivation in collecting them is watching them fly, a motivation that naturally led him to the Reno Air Races. After a decade of sponsoring aircraft at Reno, he decided that enough was enough.
“I love the Reno Air Races but it seemed like once a year there was a major destruction of one of these racing airplanes, most of which date back to World War II,” Pond said. “If it kept up, it seemed like it would be only a matter of years before there were very few of these airplanes left. I hated to see that happen because there are just not enough around that you can blow up one or two a year.”
Pond employed Burt Rutan to design and build the Pond Racer. The Model 158 Pond Racer was an all-graphite warbird chaser resembling a P-38. Two Electramotive automobile engines capable of 1,000 hp each powered it. Pond envisioned multiple contemporary racers competing at Reno instead of warbirds.
The Pond Racer participated at Reno in 1991, dropping out due to mechanical failures, but came back the following year to finish second in the bronze. In 1993, the aircraft tragically crashed during time trials at Reno, killing its pilot, Rick Brickert.
“We had big ideas for the racer and we had wonderful opportunities in the races that we entered, but unfortunately, we had an accident down the road,” Pond said. “The crash really brought the entire enterprise to a halt. I have thought over the years—not for too long—that we have all the tools we would need to build another racer, but at my age, I think it’s the right thing to do to let it pass on to others. I’m glad it’s inspired others to build aircraft designed specifically for racing.”
Made to be driven
Pond has also been a lifetime fan of classic automobiles. He has built up his own collection of 110 and was long involved in vintage racing. He sponsored a team at the Indianapolis 500 in 1968 and 1969, as a promotion for Advance Machine Company.
“We weren’t in it to win the race, although we were in the number-one spot for the first hour,” Pond said. “We developed enough horsepower to keep out in front and had enough fuel in our tank to drive longer than the rest of the field. We obviously didn’t win the race, but it was an awful lot of fun.”
Pond has been thrilled with automobiles since he was a child.
“My father was kind of a car nut,” he remembered. “He didn’t collect them but he knew how to rebuild one from the wheels up. I started driving when I was about 12 years old. As time went on, I was able to make some investments and build a small collection that eventually turned into a medium-sized collection.”
Much of Pond’s exquisite collection is kept at the museum, where the automobiles help to set the pre-war scene as the exhibits lead up to World War II. Pond’s collection includes a rare 1948 Tucker, a 1935 Chrysler Airflow, seven Rolls Royce models dating back to the 1930s and several Lincoln convertibles. He also favors Aston Martins, and has a whole range, from the DB4, a high-performance 1960 roadster, to his newest addition, a sleek new AR1 that he often drives to lunch. He names no favorites, always claiming that his favorite car is the one he drove last.
“Driving these automobiles with their powerful engines is an exhilarating experience,” he affirmed. “They’re truly beautiful and it’s great to have other people enjoy them with me. It’s just something in my blood, I guess. I’ve been collecting them for so long that I can’t even remember why I started, other than the fact that I love to drive them.”
Pond still keeps a few planes for his personal use, including the first Piaggio Avanti off the line, an Italian turboprop that holds special meaning for Pond’s wife, Jo, who is also Italian.
“She’s been as much an enthusiast in the aviation world as I have,” Pond said fondly. “She’s flown with me in all the warbirds over this whole country in every air show. Josie just goes and goes. I’m slowing down a little bit but she’s picking up the pace.”
In terms of both flying and the museum, he’s slowly turning over the reins to others.
“There’s a time to stop playing tennis and there’s a time to stop playing with airplanes. I’ll leave the flying to others and just enjoy being involved with other pilots and their planes,” Pond said.
Pond became chairman emeritus of the Palm Springs Air Museum in January, turning over the CEO post to longtime friend and partner Phil Hixon, who shares responsibilities for operations with President Sharon Maguire. The nonprofit museum became debt free last year, despite opening a new 15,700-square-foot hangar to house “Miss Angela.” Its operating budget of $1.8 million is covered by admissions, memberships, gift shop sales and corporate events.
“No donation or contribution to this museum ever goes towards operating costs,” said Maguire. “Those funds go toward our education program and acquiring new aircraft and building exhibits. Our board is very committed to this museum and Mr. Pond has ingrained in us from the very beginning to spend our money wisely.”
This year, Pond arranged for the museum to purchase the last 14 planes that were under lease to them, allowing the museum to eventually own them in perpetuity. The planes form the core of the extraordinary educational experience of visiting the museum. None of the aircraft are ever barricaded from the public and 17 of them are flown every Saturday during the high season from October through May. This season’s last event will take place on Memorial Day, when the B-25 drops carnations over the museum’s ramp.
Pond’s collection has been augmented in recent years by several loans from the military, a few new acquisitions and visiting aircraft. An F-18 Hornet on loan from the National Aviation Museum in Pensacola will soon join an F-14 Tomcat, an A-4 Skyhawk and an A-6 Intruder in the Jet Park in front.
“Of course, the government keeps the ownership of the modern aircraft, as they should, because if they let us own them, we’d most likely go fly them,” Pond laughed.
Other planes that have visited the museum include “Glacier Girl,” the P-38 rescued from Greenland’s ice shelf, as well as a fully original Japanese A6M Zero and the last flying Heinkel HE111 German bomber. However, there’s much more to the museum. Original combat photography is used to take visitors back in time, showing the collection in operational use during the war. Aviation art by gifted artist Stan Stokes helps to emphasize the contributions of veterans like the Tuskegee Airmen. Over 300 volunteers also use aircraft and ship models to interpret the significance of air and sea battles.
“Many of the models were from the early days,” Pond explained. “When I was younger, I wanted a B-17 and never thought I would be able to buy one, so I had a model built instead. Now we have both the models and the airplanes.”
The museum also runs an extensive education program, lending the use of its extensive vintage library to local schools as well as for the Library of Congress’ project to collect the oral histories of war veterans. It also coordinates an after-school program for at-risk youth that offers up to 2.5 credits towards graduation.
The museum draws an extraordinary class of aviators, business leaders and celebrities to speak for various events. On the political and media side have been Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw and Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois), the current speaker of the house. Aviators have included Don Pederson from the Navy’s Top Gun school, General Paul W. Tibbets and astronauts Wally Schirra and Sally Ride, who participated in the museum’s Youth Town Hall that draws over 2,400 local schoolchildren over a two-day period.
“We’re trying to expand and improve our education program, which is so important here in the desert,” Maguire said. “People think of Palm Springs and they don’t imagine that there are needy families and children here, but there are a good number of people in this valley who need help and who we’re trying to reach.”
Pond and his wife contribute a significant amount to education at the museum as well as at the University of Minnesota and to other charitable causes. Recently, Pond founded the Pond Family Chair for the Advancement and Teaching of Free Market Principles at the school’s Carlson School.
“We try to do what we can,” Pond admitted. “Aviation gets some preference in the money that we donate, but I’m a University of Minnesota graduate that is very pleased with the education I received. The opportunities I received were really initiated at this university. This is what people do when they live in this country; they participate in the opportunities they have to share their knowledge and wealth with others.”
As he takes more time for himself, Pond finds that he enjoys the museum almost as much as any visitor. It remains an astonishingly generous gift to future generations.
“The museum is really the center of my life now,” Pond said. “We have the most wonderful group running the museum and it’s great to sit back and enjoy the directions they’re taking. It’s a community organization and we’ve never missed a day of praising this area and the people who live here. The museum is one of the top attractions in Southern California. There’s no way to really get the sense of what a wonderful museum it is without visiting it in person.”
The Palm Springs Air Museum is located at 745 Gene Autry Trail on Palm Springs Regional Airport. For more information, call 760-778-6262 or visit [http://www.air-museum.org].