Grumman F7F Tigercats
It’s amazing that I ever learned anything in school, because I spent most classes sketching airplanes in my notebooks. To this day, I can’t go to a meeting without scratch paper. I’ve been fascinated by flight since I was a kid and flew with my family from Columbus, Ohio, to New York and back every summer. Several of my boyhood birthdays involved daylong trips to the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
Many years later, I’m no less excited when it comes to getting on a plane to go somewhere. I insist on a window seat, not only to enjoy the scenery from on high, but also to observe the goings-on around the airport. I understand the principles of flight, but it still amazes me that more than a million pounds of jet airliner (in the case of a fully loaded Airbus A380) can get off the ground, much less fly halfway around the world.
What follows is a highly selective list of my favorite aviation museums around the country. If your favorite is missing, don’t take it personally. There’s not enough room to feature every site in the nation, or even just in California. Tell us (nicely) what’s missing, and we’ll create a more complete list that we’ll eventually post on our website.
USS Midway Museum
Docked smack-dab in the middle of San Diego’s harbor, this huge gray aircraft carrier offers a collection of 25 naval aircraft from World War II through Operation Desert Storm that were restored across the bay at Naval Air Station North Island. Self-guided or docent-led tours of the ship include the sleeping quarters, a huge galley, ready rooms, and the bridge. A self-guided tour for children began in May. Many of the docents served aboard the ship and can provide unique insights into the cramped, hectic life they shared with 5,000 others aboard this floating airport that served the country for 47 years.
Hours: 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving and December 25.
Admission: $18 general.
Planes of Fame Air Museum
When aviation buff Edward T. Maloney saw that many World War II airplanes were being cut up for scrap after the war, he founded a museum in 1957 to preserve flyable examples of the aircraft for future generations. The museum was first located in Claremont, moved to Ontario International Airport in 1963, and has been at the Chino Airport since 1973. A sister location that opened in 1995 near the Grand Canyon in Valle, Arizona, houses 40 of the museum’s 150 aircraft, many of which are still in flying condition. At Chino, the 475th Fighter Group hangar opened in October 2009 and is home to the museum’s P-38 Lightning.
Upcoming events: On the first Saturday of each month, Living History Flying Days feature an individual plane with an expert seminar followed by a flight demonstration. The December 4 event will feature the only fully authentic flyable Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero.
Hours: 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, December 25, and occasional special events.
Admission: $11 general (AAA discount available).
The Museum of Flight
The Museum of Flight has one of the largest collections of airplanes and spacecraft in the United States. Boeing, America’s last remaining commercial airliner manufacturer, got started in Seattle, and one of the museum’s core buildings is the Red Barn, the original Boeing factory. It was floated from its original site to the museum’s location at the south end of Boeing Field/King County Airport, about five miles south of downtown Seattle. The museum has about three dozen aircraft at its restoration center at Paine Field in Everett, about 30 miles north of Seattle, which is also open to the public for an additional small admission fee. Boeing’s own Future of Flight Aviation Center and factory tour are also located at Paine Field.
Upcoming events: “Style in the Aisle,” an exhibit about the history and fashion of flight attendants in the U.S., will return this fall.
Hours: 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving and December 25.
10 a.m.–9 p.m. the first Thursday of each month with free admission from 5 p.m.
Admission: $15 general (AAA discount available).
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Located on the south side of the National Mall, this museum has 25 exhibition galleries and several historic aircraft noted for aviation firsts: The Wright 1903 Flyer (the first successful powered flight), Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis (which made the first nonstop solo transatlantic flight), and the Apollo 11 command module Columbia (the orbital base for the first moonwalk).
Upcoming events: “Pioneers of Flight,” about the growth and influence of aviation and rocketry during the 1920s and 1930s, is scheduled to reopen in November. Updates include a broader selection of artifacts and hands-on activities for children. “Beyond: Visions of our Solar System,” an exhibition of images of planets and other celestial objects, is on display through May 2, 2011.
Hours: 10 a.m.–7:30 p.m. daily except December 25 (5:30 p.m. winter closing hours begin September 6).
Admission: Admission is free to all Smithsonian museums. Planetarium shows and IMAX films cost extra.
Space Shuttle Enterprise
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
This annex to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is located near the end of a Dulles International Airport runway, about 30 miles outside of Washington, D.C. It displays aircraft that are too large to be shown at the National Mall location, including an Air France Concorde, the B-29 Enola Gay, a Dash 80 Boeing 707 prototype, and the space shuttle Enterprise. As in the downtown location, many smaller aircraft hang from the ceiling.
Hours: 10 a.m.–6:30 p.m. daily except December 25 (5:30 p.m. winter closing hours begin September 6).
Admission: Admission is free to all Smithsonian museums. IMAX films cost extra. Public parking is $15 (free after 4 p.m.). For travelers, shuttle service from nearby Dulles International Airport (IAD) is available for 50 cents per person each way.
National Museum of the United States Air Force
More than 400 aircraft are spread over more than 17 acres of indoor exhibition space that includes seven galleries, and additional expansion is planned. Prominent aircraft include a B-36J, the largest bomber used by the U.S. Air Force, and the B-29 Bockscar, which dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Other military aircraft include an F-15, F-16, F-22A Raptor, and an SR-71 Blackbird, the world’s fastest jet.
Upcoming events: Giant-scale radio-controlled model jets, helicopters, and warbirds perform aerobatics on the runway behind the museum during a three-day air show September 3–5.
Hours: 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, December 25, and January 1.
Admission: Free, IMAX films cost extra.
Westways features editor Al Bonowitz wants his own P-38 Lightning.
More Flights of Fancy
Please call or check the websites for hours and admission costs.
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