Visit an air show, and you just may see Paul R. Wood, ’76 BUS, waving to you from the cockpit of a World War I biplane or a Vietnam-era supersonic jet.
Wood is founder and head of the Waukegan, Ill.–based Warbird Heritage Foundation, a non-profit that acquires, restores, displays and flies antique military aircraft.
“I’ve been an aviation enthusiast since I was 6, building model airplanes,” Wood recalls. As a high school student in Springfield, Ill., Wood worked as “an airport grease money,” sweeping out hangars, as well as washing and even working on the planes.
A business major at Illinois, Wood tried to enroll in aviation courses, “but the aviation and engineering students had priority, and I could never get in.”
Instead, he was a high flyer in a different stratosphere—venture capital—founding Madison Dearborn Partners.
On vacation in Wisconsin in the late 1980s, Wood went on a sightseeing flight “and got re-bitten by the aviation bug, so I decided to get my pilot’s license.”
Finding it particularly fun to fly vintage military aircraft, he decided to buy one. “By 2003 I had acquired several warbirds, so I decided to create a museum and foundation and donate them,” Wood says.
The Warbird Heritage Foundation “is not a museum where you’re behind a rope and all you can do is look,” he says. “We have 16 historic airplanes, and all are fully operational. When people see them at air shows, they can hear the sound, smell the smoke, feel the vibration and watch them fly.”
The foundation’s planes have flown in formation with the Air Force’s Heritage Flight Program, the Navy’s Legacy Flight Program and the Chicago Air and Water Show.
“The University prepared me very well to go into business and flying,” Wood says, noting, however, that “the highlight of my four years was meeting my future wife, Corinne, in math class when we were 18. She turned out to be the love of my life. A super woman.” The late Corinne Wood, ’76 LAS, served as Illinois Lieutenant Governor from 1999 to 2003.