People who like airplanes can find a lot to like when they visit Southern California, where they'll find plenty of opportunity to see historic aircraft up-close and personal. In some cases, they'll see a lot more than just aircraft but if you have someone in your family who is fascinated by the world of flight, here are some great places to visit.
San Diego Air and Space Museum
The San Diego Zoo gets all the press but in the same general area – Balboa Park – this museum excels at displaying an excellent variety of flying machines that run the gamut from the earliest days of flight to the Space Shuttle. Throw in a 4-D theater, flight simulators and fascinating special exhibits and the San Diego Air and Space Museum is definitely worth a visit when you're in the area.
The museum usually has a traveling exhibit that offers local residents plenty of reasons to revisit the museum. It also has an impressive collection of vintage aircraft on display, all well organized in chronological order taking you through the early days of flight, then through the world wars and post-war period right up to the space program. From bi-planes to jet aircraft, the airplanes are all in mint condition – a few are reproductions – and visitors can really get a sense of what it was like to fly in these old machines.
If you want to know what it's like to fly in a jet fighter, try out the motion simulator that, for $8 a passenger, allows you to take the controls of your own jet fighter and fly it around San Diego. The elaborate simulator will turn you and tilt you and re-create the sensations of flying much better than sitting in front of your computer at home. We found the gravitational forces you experience to be amazing.
Another fun part of the museum is the 4-D Zable Theater that features various movies that put you right into the action through 3-D glasses and seats that rumble and tilt and spray you with air and water. It's not exactly on a par with amusement rides at Universal Studios or Disneyland, but it's pretty close – and an unexpected treat.
For more information on the San Diego Air and Space Museum, phone 619-234-8291 or visit www.sandiegoairandspace.org.
Also in San Diego, visitors have a chane to see a Naval Museum rivaling anything you would see on the East Coast. The U.S.S. Midway is a must-see for any airplane lover – and anyone who wants to tour a historic aircraft carrier. The museum is an impressive visual and historical experience that appeals to all ages.
We found the Midway to offer just the right balance between a structured, orderly display and one that is more individualized to fit each visitor's particular interests and time available to tour the museum. As part of the admission price, each visitor is loaned a "Walkman"-like audio device and headphones to hear pre-recorded explanations of 29 different points of interest in various locations around the ship. But you're totally on your own – you can see these points of interest in any order or even skip some if you like.
So why is it worth visiting the U.S.S. Midway? Just visiting an aircraft carrier, for one thing, is a treat unto itself. But in the Midway's case, there is a 47-year history that is good to keep in the back of your mind as you get a real sense of what it's like to live and work on an aircraft carrier.
The Midway was the world's largest warship when it was launched in 1945 and remained so for more than a decade. Named for the famous Battle of Midway, the carrier did not actually see service in that battle, but did serve in combat during the Vietnam War and was one of six carriers sent to fight Iraq during Desert Storm.
Visitors get a good up-close look at the living and working conditions on board the Midway. Entering on the massive Hangar Deck, they are first treated to several exhibits offering history on the ship and its aircraft. Then doorways open here and there to allow visitors to step into the galley and mess deck area – where 13,000 meals were served each day – and into such work areas as the weapons control station, metal shop and post office.
Originally designed to carry propeller-driven fighter aircraft, the Midway soon adapted to the new jet aircraft that became the mainstay of American naval airpower. The deck was reconfigured and catapults and electronics were upgraded to handle the ship's F/A-18 Hornets, A-6 Intruders and A-7 Corsair II's – up to 68 jet airplanes on any given mission.
Today visitors will find examples of those aircraft on the flight deck as well as an E-2C Hawkeye and an F-4 Phantom II, one of the workhorses in the Vietnam War. Helicopters and historic propeller-driven aircraft also are on display.
March Air Force Base
There's no doubt that travelers along Interstate 215 just south of Riverside have noticed the collection of military and vintage aircraft a short distance from the freeway, but those who have not bothered to stop are truly missing something. The March Field Air Museum is a remarkably detailed look at the history of aviation and, in particular, the use of aviation in modern warfare.
Sprawling alongside the runway at March Air Force Base are more than 60 aircraft of all sizes and shapes, from little single-engine prop planes to the mammoth B-52 bomber. And then, just a few steps away is the indoor museum that tells the story of how aircraft were first used in warfare and how they have become a vital part of our nation's military power. Thousands of artifacts are on display to bring it all to life.
Upon entering the museum visitors are given a map of the museum floor as well as the aircraft displayed outdoors on the flightline. Rather than just displaying airplanes, the museum has organized a sequential series of exhibits that take visitors through the 20th Century beginning with World War I and the creation of March Field in 1918.
Exhibits depict the base's early history and then move onto the stories of World War II and how March was used extensively during the war for training. Various battles are explained and visitors learn the different types of aircraft and missions undertaken during the war. One exhibit, for example, focuses on the famed Tuskegee Airmen who were a group of African-American pilots that played a vital role in the war.
The progression of exhibits takes the visitor forward to the Korea War, the Vietnam War and, finally, Desert Storm, offering photos, diagrams and artifacts from each period to convey these experiences and the role that air power played in each.
Throughout the museum, the staff has assembled a treasure trove of authentic equipment from each of these eras. Several aircraft are on display in the museum itself, including vintage fighters from both world wars and some of the first jet aircraft ever built. But then step outside and, there on the flightline, is a fleet of airplanes probably larger than most third-world countries' air forces.
Many of the aircraft at the March Air Museum are not all that easy to find nowadays. For example, the museum has one of only four combat B-17's that exist in the United States today.
Photos, from top: family visiting March AFB with B-17 in the background; USS Midway features many vintage fighter jets on its deck; the museum at March AFB
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway