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Air & Space Museums Showcase Aviation’s History, Present, Future

B-17 Flying Fortress at Pima Air & Space Museum

Story & photos by Kim D. McHugh

The first burst of anti-aircraft flak hit the fuselage of the B-24 Liberator, sending seven airmen to their deaths. On its 21st mission, a bombing raid over Kassel, Germany, the bomber was hit three more times, killing two more airmen. Pilot Homer Still, one of my dad’s best friends, and his co-pilot, managed to deploy their parachutes. Captured by German troops the two spent nearly two years as POWs in Stalag Luft I before being liberated by Russian soldiers.

While Homer’s experience was personal to my family, there are tens of thousands of similar stories told through America’s air and space museums, where visitors learn about the history of flight, pioneers in aviation, the extraordinary sacrifices by those serving in uniform and a look into the future of flight.

 

F4U-Corsair at Palm Springs Air Museum

Palm Springs Air Museum, CA  — As kids my older brother and I loved building model airplanes and rockets, which we’d hang from our bedroom ceiling with fishing line. The collection included U.S., R.A.F., Axis and Japanese warbirds, as well as the Mercury Friendship 7, which propelled (literally) John H. Glenn into space and aviation history. Seeing planes suspended from this museum’s Library and Education Center ceiling brought back those memories, but more importantly, confirmed that the fascination with flight is alive and well.

“An aviation museum is a place to learn how to dream,” says Lt. Col. Harry Ziegler (U.S.M.C. Ret.). “This library has two 3-D flight simulators and five simulators for flying fighter aircraft. Over 1,150 WW II Veteran Oral Histories have been completed and 5,000 movies are available for members to check out. These pilots became the heroes of our time and their daring and fearlessness sparked the imagination of millions of children.”

With over 9,200 volumes the center is a terrific resource for aviation history. Touring the Korea/Vietnam hanger I stopped by a display that was quite poignant—the one honoring MIA/POW/KIA veterans. Between nearly 600 bracelets and Vietnam Remembrance Wall, including a photo of the late Senator and decorated Naval aviator, John McCain, visitors get a sense of the suffering and sacrifice associated with war.

I was visiting on a day where patrons willing to pay $1,900 were able to take a 20-minute flight in a restored P-51D Mustang. Seeing the silver warbird with its red tail take off was really cool. I was also awed by the Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber, the same kind former president George H.W. Bush—WW II’s youngest Naval pilot—took on 58 combat missions. Equally impressive was the nose art, including those drawn by Walt Disney.

XWing Star Fighter at Wings Over the Rockies

Wings Over the Rockies, CO — If you’re a Star Wars fan, add this venue to your ‘to do’ list. WOTR is home to a ¾-scale replica of an X-Wing Starfighter, the one flown by Luke Skywalker in the 1977 blockbuster movie. Signed by Harrison Ford, George Lucas and other cast members, it is among the more than 50 aircraft located in Hangar 1 of the former Lowry Air Force Base.

I spent nearly three hours touring the hanger, including taking a five-minute ride in the MaxFlight simulator piloting a P-38 Lightning engaged in a dogfight against German warbirds. The sim invites ‘pilots’ to fly up to 14 different aircraft. Another sim allowed me to ‘fly’ a Wright Brothers plane. Two other sims—the Doron and Aviation Xtreme—invite guests to experience flight as well.

The museum’s aircraft collection spans from the early days of flight to WW II and Vietnam to space exploration, the latter having its own corner anchored by the Casis International Space Station exhibit. Important to see before it moves to the National WW II Museum later this year is the “Lest We Forget: The Mission” bronze sculpture. Created by Major Fredric Arnold (Ret.), it honors the more than 88,000 U.S. airmen killed during WW II. The only surviving member of his Class of 1942 P-38 pilots, Arnold died at age 96 on Memorial Day 2018.

Recently, the museum expanded its mission of sharing its passion for aviation by opening the Boeing Blue Sky Aviation Gallery . Located at Centennial Airport, it is described as ‘an interactive aviation center’ whose focus is on inspiring the next generation of aviation enthusiasts.

While there I learned that Boeing estimates that the aviation industry will need more than two million new personnel (pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers, flight attendants) over the next 18 years. It’s unlikely I’ll be one of them based on my time in the Redbird FMX. An FAA-approved partial motion simulator, it allowed me to take an incredibly realistic 10-minute ‘flight’ piloting a Cessna 182. Though my two takeoffs were successful, I crashed both times on my landings! Still, it was very exhilarating and actually made me think about taking flying lessons. A FlyThisSim TouchTrainer and Redbird XWind simulator provided additional options to get a sense of flight.

Gilpin Airlines Biplane at Pima Air & Space Museum

Pima Air & Space Museum, AZ   — How many lives were saved by the U.S. Coast Guard thanks to the Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican? In which James Bond movie did the Bede BD-5J Microjet appear? What was the most produced aircraft in WW II? You’ll learn these and other fascinating stats while touring this museum, which features over 350 historical aircraft.

Open since 1976, the 80-acre facility is comprised of six indoor exhibit hangers that showcase military planes from WW I, WW II, Korea, Vietnam and modern conflicts, as well as civilian aircraft, including a 1934 Gilpin & Greenway Air Lines biplane, a Pereira/Hummel Osprey 2 flying ‘boat’ and the Starr Bumble Bee, designed solely to earn the distinction of being the world’s smallest aircraft.

I spent around three hours touring the museum, which in addition to the collection of aircraft, has over 100 displays, exhibits, and audio and video recordings. Of particular interest to me were the WW II and Vietnam-era aircraft, if only to better appreciate America’s aviation engineering ingenuity and firepower.

J4F2 Widgeon Seaplane at Gilpin Airlines Biplane

Quite sobering was my time spent at the hanger managed by veterans of the 390th Bomb Group. Home to a restored B-17G Flying Fortress, the hanger has displays and videos chronicling the camaraderie, bravery and casualties: the 8th Air Force alone lost over 26,000 men and more than 28,000 became POWs. Of the 10,561 planes shot down, 4,754 were B-17s. In August and October 1943, and January 1944, 180 B-17s were shot down—60 on each mission.

A lighter side of my tour took me outside, where the grounds have over 100 decommissioned military planes and helicopters, as well as civilian and rescue aircraft. A 25-minute stroll through the Space Gallery gave me a look at a full-size mockup of an Apollo capsule, a solar-powered car and the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame.

 

IF YOU GO:

There are air and space museums or aviation exhibits in all 50 states, as well as many in Canada and Europe. All welcome families, most have interactive experiences, docent-led tours, special events, offer educational programs and several offer ‘warbird’ flights for a fee. Admission fees are very reasonable and some are dog friendly. Here is a short list.

U.S. Army Aviation Museum, Fort Rucker, AL http://www.armyaviationmuseum.org/

National WW II Museum, New Orleans, LA: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/

Yankee Air Museum, Bellville, MI: http://yankeeairmuseum.org/

Museum of Flight, Seattle, WA: http://www.museumofflight.org/,

National Air & Space Museum, Washington, D.C.: https://airandspace.si.edu/

EAA Museum, Oshkosh, WI https://www.eaa.org/eaa-museum,

Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, Pier 86, NY https://www.intrepidmuseum.org/,

Houston Space Center, Houston, TX https://spacecenter.org/

 

Kim D. McHugh has written about travel, snow sports, hotels, local restaurants and chefs, architecture and interesting people since 1986. A former associate editor at Rocky Mountain Golf magazine, the Lowell Thomas award-winning freelance writer is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America. Based in Colorado, he enjoys sharing those “I-didn’t-know-that” revelations with readers in articles that have appeared in the San Francisco Examiner, the Denver Post, SKI, Hemispheres, 5280, Luxury Golf & Travel, Colorado Expression, Tastes of Italia, Vail/Beaver Creek and Colorado AvidGolfer.

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