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Great aviation museums—Southwestern US

Editor's note: This article was updated Feb. 7, 2019, to include the Lone Star Flight Museum, which is thriving in its new Houston location.

From major manufacturers like Northrop and Lockheed to important military installations like Edwards Air Force Base, the American Southwest has more than its share of aviation history—and great museums. Here are some of our favorites.

  • The San Diego Air & Space Museum is housed within the former Ford Building, built in 1935–36 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A Convair YF2Y-1 Seadart and a Lockheed A-12 Blackbird are mounted at its entrance. Photo by Peter Carney.
  • A Gee Bee R-1 Super Sportster race plane at the San Diego Air & Space Museum. Photo by Tomas Del Coro via Flickr.
  • The space shuttle Endeavour, atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, lands at LAX on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2012, in Los Angeles after completing flybys of major California landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Hollywood sign. Traffic stopped everywhere in Los Angeles, including on the freeways, where people simply got out of their cars to watch, photograph, and cheer on the shuttle. This flight marked the final ferry flight of the Space Shuttle Program. NASA HQ photo by Matt Hedges.
  • After landing safely at LAX, the Space Shuttle Endeavour was removed from the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and lowered onto the Over Land Transporter. From there, the shuttle was slowly maneuvered through city streets to its final destination at the California Science Center. Crowds of people turned out along the entire pathway, night and day, to view the unforgettable sight firsthand. Photo by nate2b via Flickr.
  • After more than twenty organizations submitted proposals to NASA for the display of an orbiter, NASA announced that Endeavour would go to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. If you stand beneath the shuttle and look up at the heat-shielding tiles, you will see that each has a unique shape and number. Photo by melfoody via Flickr.
  • The Space Shuttle Endeavour completed 25 missions in space. It now rests at the California Science Center, displayed on a stand that has been engineered to absorb the shock of even a very large earthquake. Eventually Endeavour will be displayed in an upright position, as if ready for takeoff, inside a new building. Photo by Ray Boukknight via Flickr.
  • This Mitsubishi Zero/Reisen/Zeke A6M5 belongs to The Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California. Shown here at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 2011, it is the only fully authentic flyable example in the world. Restored to flying condition in June 1978, this Zero fighter is still powered by its original Nakajima Sakae 31 engine. It carries the same color scheme and markings it bore in combat for the Imperial Japanese Navy during the war. Photo by D. Miller via Flickr.
  • “Wee Willy II,” a P-51D Mustang owned by the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California, taxis out for takeoff during the 2010 Aviation Nation Airshow at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Photo by Tomas Del Coro via Flickr.
  • The Flying Wing N-9MB flies over the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, California. Photo courtesy Flickr.
  • The Lockheed P-38J Lightning “Skidoo” in the 475th Fighter Group hangar at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California. This airplane often flies to Idaho to participate in the Warbird Roundup at the Warhawk Museum in Nampa. Photo by Tomas Del Coro via Flickr.
  • If you fly to the Mojave Air & Space Port you’ll see dozens of surplus Boeing 747s that have been parked near the airfield. Photo by Alan Wilson via Flickr.
  • A Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the world’s fastest air-breathing manned aircraft, at the Pima Air & Space Museum. Photo by Beta75 via Wikipedia.
  • An aerial view of just a tiny fraction of the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Many of these aircraft can be flown again if needed; others are used for spare parts or sold as scrap. On a bus tour of AMARC we learned that 365 B-52 bombers were destroyed in the 1990s to comply with the START I treaty. Each B-52 was chopped into five pieces by a 13,000-pound guillotine, supported by a crane. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Amber Porter.
  • At the Titan Missile Museum, you can stand right above a monstrous ICBM that is loaded into a silo. The Titan II was the largest operational land-based nuclear missile ever used by the United States, 103 feet tall, and with a range of 5,500 nautical miles. The missile had one W53 warhead with a yield of 9 megatons (9,000 kilotons). The only Titan II operational silo that has not been demolished, this one is now a National Historic Landmark. Photo courtesy Titan Missile Museum.
  • This Douglas DC-3, shown inside the War Eagles Museum at Doña Ana County International Airport in southeast New Mexico, started life as a C-47 troop transport. The museum has documentation that this airplane flew on D-Day in 1944. Later it served as an airliner. Photo courtesy Robert Dockendorf.

To visit the San Diego Air and Space Museum, fly to Montgomery-Gibbs Executive and then head to beautiful Balboa Park. You’ll see interior and exterior exhibits that trace aviation from dirigibles to the Space Age. Wright Flyers, race planes, Spitfire and P-51 aircraft, and the Apollo 9 command module are just a few highlights. Plan at least one extra day, because numerous other excellent museums and one of the world’s top five zoos are all within walking distance of each other inside Balboa Park.

You’ll find the California Science Center in Exposition Park, near downtown Los Angeles. Depending on your other plans, you can fly to San Gabriel Valley, Burbank, Santa Monica, or Hawthorne, each 8 to 13 nautical miles from the museum. The Science Center is known for its many hands-on scientific exhibits and IMAX Theater. But it also has impressive air and space exhibits, including an F-20 Tigershark and the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which famously flew over SoCal onboard its shuttle carrier before being carefully maneuvered through city streets to the Science Center. Exposition Park is also home to the legendary L.A. Coliseum, which hosted two Olympic Games and is now home to the USC Trojans and Los Angeles Rams. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is definitely worth extending your stay an extra day.

This airplane is a flying replica of the original Spirit of St. Louis flown across the Atlantic Ocean by Charles Lindbergh. The Museum lost its first replica, the Spirit II, in a 1978 fire. 34 craftsmen, including three builders of the original Spirit, set about building another. In eight months, the artisans spent 4,800 hours constructing the Spirit III, and on April 28, 1979, the airplane flew over San Diego. It flew over the city again in 2003, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of San Diego’s Lindbergh Field. Photo courtesy SDASM.

The Planes of Fame Air Museum has two locations: Chino, California, and Valle, Arizona. The Valle location, about halfway between the Grand Canyon and Williams, is only open April to November. Both museums are at the respective airports, so you can fly in and walk over to the museums. The Chino location, about 25 nm east of Los Angeles, presents a monthly Living History Flying Day and other events, including a huge annual airshow. A few of the rare and airworthy aircraft include the only flyable Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, a Northrop Flying Wing, and a P-38 Lightning.

Unfortunately, the Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base is now open only to those who already have appropriate credentials to enter the base. However, you can book a general base tour, which takes place monthly, or attend the yearly Gathering of Eagles event. The nearby Mojave Air and Space Port, home to SpaceShipOne and Scaled Composites (think Richard Branson and Burt Rutan), doesn’t offer tours, but you can fly in for the Voyager Restaurant or “Plane Crazy Saturdays” the third Saturday of each month when the Mojave Transportation Museum holds various events.

An F-20 Tigershark and T-38 Talon hang inside the California Science Center. Photo by ATOMIC Hot Links via Flickr.

The Tucson area boasts three compelling installations every pilot should see. The Pima Air and Space Museum is the largest nongovernment funded aviation museum in the world, with some 300 aircraft. From Pima you can take a bus tour to the Davis-Monthan Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, the world’s largest aircraft storage and restoration facility. Finally, the Titan Missile Museum is a frightening yet fascinating remnant of the Cold War. You’ll stare down an actual 10-story Titan II missile, capable of delivering a nuke with the explosive power of 9 million tons of TNT. Then you’ll go deep underground into the hardened control room where the crew had the capability, if so ordered, to launch that missile and rain doomsday onto its target. Read more about all these, and Tucson, here.

The Lone Star Flight Museum is the place to visit if you love warbirds. The museum features more than 20 beautifully restored warbird and classic aircraft such as the Boeing B–17 Flying Fortress, North American B–25 Mitchell, Republic P–47 Thunderbolt, Chance Vought F4U Corsair, Douglas SBD Dauntless, and Douglas DC–3. If younger family members are touring with you, be sure to stop at the museum's Aviation Learning Center, which immerses children in grades five through 12 “in the energy and excitement of flight through a hands-on learning experience.” Experiences include preflighting a Mooney and flying a simulator. The museum had been located in Galveston, Texas, since 1995 but was relocated to Houston in late 2017.

Last but definitely not least, a museum you may never have heard of but shouldn’t miss: The War Eagles Museum at New Mexico's Doña Ana County International Jetport, just west of El Paso, Texas, and near the Mexican border. Opened in 1989 by pilots John and Betty MacGuire, the museum holds 36 World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam-era aircraft, many of them of great historical significance, and most maintained in flying condition. World War II-era airplanes include the famed P-51 Mustang, P-38 Lightning, P-40 Warhawk, F4U-4 Corsair, twin-engine Invader bomber, DC-3 transport, and a German Fiesler-Storch. The 1950s-era jets on display include an F-86 Sabre, T-33 Silver Star, and MiG-15s. An annex displays a remarkable collection of antique automobiles. All this for only $5, kids and teachers free, and discounts for seniors, military, and veterans. Plus, a fixed-baser operator with exceptional service and a skydiving school on the field. Visit this remarkable out-of-the-way airport—it’s a general aviation gem—and exercise your freedom to fly.

A wide-angle photo of rare aircraft and vehicles on display inside the War Eagles Museum. Photo courtesy Robert Dockendorf.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: U.S. Travel

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