AOPA is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its award-winning AOPA Pilot magazine by looking back at how general aviation has changed in the last half-century. Those who want to learn more about California’s aviation contributions during the past five decades will find that history is alive and well in the halls and on the grounds of the state’s 30-plus aviation museums. California pilots can fly to a number of airports, tie down their airplanes, and take a short walk to museums that are packed with the rich cross-section of aviation history in The Golden State.
The Western Museum of Flight was on the Jack Northrop/Hawthorne Airport for decades, but a new business model at that airport eliminated the space. So last November, the Western Museum of Flight moved chock, prop, and barrel to the Torrance airport. This treasure trove of artifacts and exhibits focuses on the wide range of contributions that Jack Northrop and Northrop Aircraft had on America’s air power and the growth of the aerospace industry in California. For now, only small portions of the exhibits are on display in a hangar one row west of the terminal building. Torrance is planning the construction of a new building to house the museum.
Museums provide a revealing window into historical technology and airplanes. Today, anyone with a computer and flight program software can practice instrument approaches for pennies per hour. To get insight into simulators of the past, fly up to the Hiller Museum at the San Carlos Airport and see its beautifully restored Link Trainer. This wooden box on a pedestal was the preeminent instrument-training device of the 1940s. After pilots enter a mini-door in the side of the “fuselage,” a wooden cover is closed. The box not only yaws and rolls in response to inputs from the trainee-in-the-box, but it also has tiny wings and tail surfaces.
California pilots are fortunate that many of the state’s aviation museums are much more than a collection of gutted fuselages. These are living museums that restore rare airplanes to flying status. Museums such as the Planes of Fame at the Chino Airport; the Commemorative Air Force, Southern California Wing, at Camarillo Airport; and the Wings of History museum at the South County Airport in San Martin, to name only a few, do maintain and fly their exhibits. The Planes of Fame Air Museum has an inventory of 156 aircraft. Fifty-seven are in flying status. Many are flown during monthly air shows. These outfits also have impressive collections of non-flyable airplanes and other aviation artifacts. Many of these museums concentrate on military aircraft, but not all. A replica of an Avitor hangs from the ceiling of the Hiller Museum located on the west side of San Carlos Airport. The museum cites the Avitor as the first heavier-than-air aircraft with a three-axis control system. Powered by a one-horsepower steam engine, this unmanned ship flew one mile in 1869. Although there are only a handful of piston-driven engine manufacturers today, engine manufacturers from yesteryear such as Menasco, Salmson, Kinner, Pobjoy, and Cirrus grace the halls of the Wings of History Museum adjacent to South County Airport. A replica of the Montgolfier balloon—the first craft to overcome the forces of gravity and become airborne (in 1783) as well as Leonardo Da Vinci’s conception of a flying machine—his Ornithopter—are examples of how the Aerospace Museum at Balboa Park in San Diego has illustrated progress in flight. The USS Hornet Museum, aboard the famous World War II-era aircraft carrier, is docked in Alameda harbor. It provides a glimpse into carrier aviation.
California even has a fly-in time machine museum festivity that transports visitors back to the airplanes and big band days of World War II. The Central California Historical Military Museum holds its fundraiser every year at Eagle Field in Dos Palos, California. This small (2,300-foot long) airport was an Army Air Forces training base beginning in 1942. Every year this special-use airport, located 12.3 miles from the Panoche VOR on the 010 radial, hums with activity for two days in June. In 2007, more than 1,000 dinners were served during the Saturday night dinner, dance, and reunion celebration. Fly-in and drive-in visitors are welcome.
Almost all of the California aviation museums welcome volunteers. Those with the technical skills and experience to work on airplanes are prized, but that doesn’t mean that novices and youngsters with a yen to learn and a willingness to work aren’t welcome. Volunteering at an aviation museum can lead to many rewarding experiences. My wife was working on the maintenance crew of “Executive Sweet,” a B-25J Mitchell based in Camarillo, California, when I met her. California is home to more than 30 aviation museums. Next time you’re looking for a flying destination, or when weather is keeping you on the ground at a California airport, find the nearest museum—you’ll quickly come to appreciate the last 50 years of aviation progress.
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