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.
Our afternoon at the museum turned out to be one of the most entertaining and informative museum visits we can remember. We hadn't really heard much about the museum, even where we live in the San Diego area. But we had noticed those airplanes on various drives northward, and this time we decided to stop.
On this sunny Saturday, the rather sizeable parking lot was about two-thirds full — so word about the museum is getting out somehow. The visitors we saw seemed to fall in two general categories: retirees who we guessed may have had some military background, and families of all sizes. It was obvious that kids of all ages were eagerly exploring one aircraft after another, climbing up to look into the cockpits, examining the bomb doors or landing gear and just gazing at some of the larger aircraft with a look of amazement.
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. A call had gone out from our forces in Europe that the Germans were having great success in the war with their new "flying machines." Congress then appropriated money for the development of more fighting aircraft and, as part of that package, several training bases were funded, including March Field.
As it turned out, March Field was opened just a few months before the end of World War 1 and, while training continued for a few years, the base all but shut down in 1923. It re-opened in 1927 and was then used to train some of the U.S. military's most famous flying aces and generals. Exhibits depict this 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. Another exhibit offers photos and a mockup to tell the story of American POWs shot down over Germany and the conditions they endured until the end of 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. A complete historic gun collection is on display offering a look at handguns, rifles and machine guns from the various time periods. Several B-52 simulators are on display including those used to train gunners, navigators and electronic warfare officers. An assortment of missiles and bombs helps visitors understand the various armaments being employed by our military, past to present. Jet engines, piston engines, radar systems — anything you can imagine that is found in an aircraft — are available for up-close viewing.
The museum also has a few novelty items — for example, you can see the B-47 mockup used by Jimmy Stewart when he filmed the movie "Strategic Air Command." For the thrill-seekers in your group, try the simulation ride that duplicates the G-forces you would experience if you were actually flying in an F-14 fighter jet.
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. All the airplanes are neatly organized with descriptive plaques telling visitors exactly what each aircraft is and why it's important.
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. Another is the SR-71 Blackbird — the fastest airplane ever built and used for spy missions during the Cold War. The B-52's on display are incredibly large when you get close up — visitors can walk right under the rear wheel well and see just where the atomic bombs were stored as the B-52's were used as a deterrent during the height of the arms race.
The airplanes are great but, as often is the case at a museum of this sort, the volunteers give the whole experience texture. Generally the people who are there to answer your questions have some personal history with these aircraft and John Monahan is no exception. Retired after a 28-year Air Force career, Monahan was on duty in the P-38 Museum the day we visited and was more than willing to share his stories about flying the twin-engine P-38 fighter from the time it was brought on line in 1941.
A veteran of numerous combat missions, Monahan's eyes were gleaming as he recalled the increased firepower he had with this revolutionary new fighter aircraft. He also remembered it as being a little cantankerous at times — lose one engine on take off and most pilots crashed because one side was so overpowered. Another little issue with the P-38 was, when pilots ejected, they were often chewed up by the tail structure. So the answer when something went wrong was to turn the airplane upside down, open the canopy and just fall out of the aircraft.
Just next door to Monahan's building was a cockpit display of the P-38 where the volunteer this day was Toni Olson, daughter of 1st Lt. Jack "Fox" Olson who flew a P-38 named Miss Bow Legs in World War II. With Glenn Miller music creating just the right effect, Toni took a few minutes to explain to us that two of the top three P-38 "aces" came from March AFB — one of whom was Tommy McGuire, with 38 combat kills.
Such "living history" makes a trip to March Air Museum even more enjoyable — an especially meaningful experience now that the U.S. military is back on page one of the newspaper and once again truly appreciated by most of the country's citizens.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: March Air Museum is just south of Riverside on Interstate 215. Take the Van Buren exit going either north or south.
WHAT: A surprisingly complete and detailed collection of aircraft and military artifacts that is an enjoyable experience for the entire family. Those who are looking for cheap vacations could not do much better than to visit this and other museums of its type for great entertainment value.
WHY: The museum is both entertaining and educational and especially suitable for families.
HOW: For more information, call 951-697-6600 or visit www.marchairmuseum.com. Admission is $10 for adults 12 and up, $5 for children 5-11, free under 5. Local lodgings often have great travel deals and vacation packages, depending on the time of the year. For a recommended list of area lodgings, please click here.
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