The Pima Air and Space Museum, located in Tucson, is the third largest collection of airplanes, behind the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington and the Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. Walking through the hangers and parking lots of the museum, you might not discover the story of how it came to be.
It began with the Air Force Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center (MASDC) parking surplus airplanes along the fence line of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. These were World War II and 1950s-era aircraft, and people showed an interest in them. They’d stop to look. The planes became so popular, the Air Force decided to do something with them.
In 1966, Colonel I. R. Perkin, commander of MASDC, joined with members of the Tucson chapter of the Air Force Association to found the Tucson Air Museum Foundation of Pima County. It was to create a publicly accessible museum based around the aircraft people saw through the fence. With enthusiastic backing of the Pima County Board of Supervisors and the Department of Parks and Recreation, the foundation searched for a site for the museum and soon settled on 320 acres of land just south of the base.
Three years later, after fund-raising and site preparation, the new museum acquired its first airplane — the last operational B-24 Liberator bomber. It was owned by the Republic of India. After stops in the Middle East, Europe, Canada, and back at the Consolidated factory in Fort Worth, Texas, where it had been built, the B-24 arrived in Tucson 31 days and 11,000 miles after leaving India. Dignitaries from the Air Force, Indian government, and Pima County, led by aviation hero General Jimmy Doolittle were on hand to greet the plane and congratulate the crew on their achievement.
Meanwhile, MASDC — whose job was to dispose of surplus and obsolete aircraft — singled out one of each of the planes they were scrapping. By 1976, when Pima Air and Space Museum officially opened to the public, its collection included approximately 50 planes, helicopters, and missiles.
Today, the museum is comprised of seven hangers with over 100,000 square feet of space. The museum has more than 300 aircraft, some of which are becoming more and more rare.
There are vintage World War II aircraft, like the B-29 Sentimental Journey. (See the story about Wenzel “Chum” Bohr’s experiences as a gunner on this airplane elsewhere in the edition.)That original B-24 is here, along with a B-25 Mitchell. The Mitchell is like the 16 bombers Jimmy Doolittle, then a lieutenant colonel, launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet four months after Pearl Harbor to bomb Tokyo and show the Japanese America couldn’t be beaten. It you’ve read Captain Ted Lawson’s eye-witness account, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” you know the story. If you haven’t, it’s a must read for World War II history buffs.
Planes in the hangers relate different stories. There’s an A-10 Warthog, perhaps the best closesupport, anti-tank plane the U.S. ever developed. Next to it is an F-84 Thunderflash, often used to fly in harm’s way until it was painted by anti-aircraft radar, then attack and destroy the installation. Suspended from the hanger ceiling are a MiG-15 Soviet-era fighter and an F-86 Sabre jet. The two engaged in many dogfights over Korea, the Sabre jet most often coming out the winner. Parked beneath these assailants is an F-15 Tomcat, the supersonic, swing-wing fighter designed to replace the F-4 Phantom jet used in Vietnam.
There’s a hanger dedicated to the 390th Bomb Group. Opened in 1984, this memorial is run as a completely separate museum by veterans of the 390th Bomb Group. The hanger houses a B-17G Flying Fortress along with a library and an extensive collection of artifacts from members of the group.
There’s also the Space Gallery focusing on space exploration. Inside this building, visitors can examine a full-size mockup of an Apollo spacecraft as well as a full-size mockup of the X-15 hypersonic rocketpowered aircraft that carried a number of its pilots into space n suborbital flights. Neil Armstrong, who flew Apollo 11 to become the first man on the moon, was nearly certified as astronaut for his X-15 flight. Only nearly because he reached an altitude of 207,500 feet — about 40 miles, yet still 20 miles short of qualifying as being in space. X-15 pilot Joe Walker did qualify as an astronaut, flying to 354,200 feet or 67 miles up — a record that stood for 40 years until broken in 2004 by Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne, predecessor to Virgin Galactic’s VSS Eve suborbital spacecraft.
For airplane lovers, Pima Air and Space Museum provides opportunities to get up close to classic aircraft, to walk around them, put your hands on them — and pretend you’re about to climb aboard and fly away.
Inside museum hangers, the size of an airplane can be deceptive. Outdoors, the immensity of the planes is evident. For example, the B-36 Peacemaker bomber has six pusher propeller engines and four turbojet engines mounted on wings spanning 230 feet — nearly twice the length of the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Kitty Hawk flight. The B-36 the largest mass-produced piston-powered aircraft ever built.
Next to it are two B-52 Stratofortress bombers and a B-47 Stratojet bomber. These were the mainstay of the Air Force during the Cold War. There are Air Force and Navy fighters, tankers, cargo planes, helicopters, and even a few airplanes from the United Kingdom and Canada. The parking lot is so large, the museum offers a tram tour to reduce wear and tear on feet.
The Pima Air and Space Museum is open daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas day from 9 a,m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $15.50 for adults and $12.75 for seniors and military. There are additional fees for the tram tour of the museum’s outdoor displays and tours of the Air Force Boneyard on the adjacent air force base.