AMC Museum Director Mike Leister plans to retire in November after almost 40 years of service.
Mike Leister likes to travel. As a member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve and Air Mobility Command Museum, he’s done his fair share.
But beginning in November, Leister’s journeys will be personal, not for business.
Leister, 67, announced in July he is stepping down as director of the airlift museum at Dover Air Force Base.
“I plan to travel with my wife, Claudia, take some time to enjoy our grandchildren and maybe develop some new hobbies,” Leister said.
Shoo Shoo Baby flies again
Leister grew up in Millers, Md., near where his family owned a hardware and farm machinery store. But fixing tractors and tillers wasn’t part of Leister’s career plans. Vulnerable for the draft, Leister enlisted in the Air Force in March 1970 and was one of the first to work on the C-5 Galaxy just coming into service. After his enlistment was up, he became a fulltime member of the Air Force Reserve, assigned to the C-5.
Although the AMC Museum was established in October 1986, its story begins in July 1978 when, needing both a recruitment tool and a means of training budding mechanics, Leister cast about for a suitable project.
“It led me to think about restoring an airplane for the Reserves,” he said. “I wanted to get an old airplane and restore it as a publicity and training project.”
Leister persuaded Air Force brass to turn over the remains of a World War II bomber to his team. The project took years, but ended successfully when, after nine years of work, the B-17G Shoo Shoo Baby flew out of Dover under its own power.
Leister, who shepherded much of the restoration, was back at work fixing C-5s, but DAFB commander Col. Walt Kross had other plans. With the Shoo Shoo Baby gone, there was nothing to speak to Air Force heritage at Dover, Kross said. He decided to change that.
What was first envisioned as a small historical center started out as a three-man effort, but over a short period Leister inherited management of the entire project.
“It was taking enough of my time they added it to my job description so I could legally be allowed to do that,” he said.
Leister admits those early days were marked by a lot of creative thinking.
“We didn’t even know there was an Air Force regulation for museum stuff, so we just ran it based on our interpretation of what would be right,” he said.
Retired U.S. Air Force Reserve Col. Don Sloan, president of the museum foundation’s board of directors, said Leister is noted for his innovation skill.
“To get to the level of excellence we’re at today, we have to do it by the book or Mike has to get the book changed – both are necessary – and he’s frequently demonstrated that he’s very competent at doing both” Sloan said.
From the beginning, the AMC Museum, then called the Dover AFB Historical Center, had a well defined mission: a focus on airlift, which means delivering people and cargo to far-flung parts of the world. And the museum would highlight the history of aerial refueling and tell the story of Dover Air Force Base itself.
Over the years Leister has had the chance to add a number of well-known aircraft to the AMCM’s roster, including a B-52 Stratofortress. He turns them down.
“We’re an airlift/air refueling museum,” Leister said. “We don’t collect things that aren’t part of that mission.”
‘An incredible debt of gratitude’
The AMC Museum has evolved into Kent County’s most popular tourist attraction.
In October 2008, Leister was inducted into the Delaware Aviation Hall of Fame for his efforts. He considers it a singular honor for someone who is not a pilot.
“The thing is that I was very pleased I started as an aircraft mechanic,” he said. “You know, aviation is not just about pilots. At the museum, we work very hard to help people realize there are many people who make the up Air Force.
“We used to say we just loan the pilots our planes and allow them to fly them.”
Leister has the longest service in the entire Air Force heritage program. He decided a long time ago it would be time to quit when the job wasn’t fun anymore. That time has come, he said.
His decision to retire now grows from an increasing sense of frustration with layers of computer-based online training. He said it has replaced the culture of mentoring and customer service.
But Leister still has a few things to finish before November, including the AMC Museum’s three-day 30th anniversary celebration beginning Sept. 23.
When it comes time to start packing up his office, he’ll also be thinking about the future.
“I’m going to miss being able to shape the course of the growth of this museum,” Leister admits. “I’m going to miss working with people who do this because they love it.”
But then he smiles.
“One thing I’m not going to miss is getting up at 5 o’clock every morning,” he added.
Sloan thinks that no matter what Leister does after retirement, he’ll always be near the museum.
“The museum is as much of a part of Mike’s life as he is of the museum’s legacy,” he said.
“I can’t imagine anyone but Mike Leister being able to have taken our Air Mobility Command Museum to the remarkable level of success that it is today. For that, we all owe him an incredible debt of gratitude.”