Some of the Finest Western Aircraft Museums

Aircraft enthusiasts and historians will enjoy what is one of the best collections of vintage aircraft in the western U.S. There are two fascinating venues you’ll want to note make a note of.

vintage beechcraft

Vintage Beechcraft

Chino California

The first location is Chino California. The museum operates as an independently operated non-profit organization. The Chino California location of the Planes of Fame Air Museum is at the corner of Merrill Avenue and Cal Aero Drive, on the north side of Chino Airport. The entrance is off Cal Aero Dr.

Valle Arizona

As more and more vintage aircraft were restored and the Planes of Fame collection grew, an additional display location was opened in 1995 in Valle, Arizona. This site is located halfway between Williams Arizona and the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The Valle-Grand Canyon site displays over 40 of the Museum’s vintage aircraft with many of them being flyable. In Arizona the Planes of Fame Air Museum is located at 755 Mustang Way, Valle Williams, AZ, on the southeast corner of Valle Airport. This is between the town of Williams Arizona and the south rim of the Grand Canyon. This location is easily reached for those traveling through northern Arizona on Interstate-40

ford trimotor aircraft

Ford Trimotor Aircraft

A Great Display of Vintage Aircraft

Many of the vintage aircraft are kept flyable by the many people who donate both funds and aircraft parts to the two museums. People have also donated their time to help maintain the aircraft. Aircraft restoration is a big part of what this organization does.

Per the museum’s web site “Our mission is to preserve aviation history, inspire interest in aviation, educate the public, and honor aviation pioneers and veterans“. The organization claims to have the oldest air museums west of the Rocky Mountains. These fascinating museums feature a total of over 175 aircraft.  These museums offer the visitor absolutely stunning collection of vintage and famous airplanes.

The museum was first established in 1957 in Claremont California by Ed Maloney as the Air Museum. Today the museum is known by that name and also as Planes of Fame. The museum expanded at it became apparent that a second location should be added. The Arizona location is located at the reopened Valle-Grand Canyon Airport which at one time served as a TWA facility.

From time to time some of the Planes of Fame collection may be unavailable because of their participation in air shows, movie productions and often displays at various military airbases. Below is a very partial list of the flyable aircraft on display at each of the two Plans of Fame Museum locations.

uboat patrol aircraft

Aircraft used for Uboat patrol in the Gulf of Mexico during W.W. II

At the Chino California museum...Grumman Bearcat, Grumman Avenger, Vought Corsair, Grumman Hellcat, North American Mustang, Misubishi Zero, Lockheed Lightening.

At the Valle-Grand Canyon Arizona museum…Standard W.W. I Trainer, Curtiss Robin Flying Replica, Martin Airliner, North America Trojan, Billy Walker Nieuport Flying Replica.

Two additional articles you’ll enjoy are on the links below…

American Military Aircraft

Who Was the First American Aviator?

Take a Plane Ride on an Historic C-47

Static Displays and Restorations

In addition to the above, there are many aircraft models on static display and some in various stages of restoration.

The Chino California location places an emphasis on Naval aircraft where a part of one building features the aircraft of the U.S.S. Enterprise, a naval air museum within the museum.

At the Arizona location one of the most interesting aircraft on display is the 1929 Ford 5-AT Trimotor. This aircraft was built by the Ford Motor Company as a passenger aircraft. The plane was sold all over the world for both civilian and military use.

grumman hellcat airplane

Grumman Hellcat

The Trimotor was very popular in it’s time for providing both luxury and speed. During it’s years of production, a total of 199 Ford Trimotors were produced. The last Trimotor was built in 1933. The author had the opportunity to ride in a Ford Trimotor from Port Clinton Ohio to South Bass Island a short distance island off the Ohio coast in Lake Erie. It was a great historic type adventure and I would recommend it to anyone. If your travels include a northern Ohio vacation or weekend trip you may want to check with Island Airlines at the Port Clinton Ohio Airport for schedules and more information.

(Article copyright 2014 Trips Into History. Photos and images in the public domain)

 

American Military Aircraft

 

In this article Trips Into History will highlight several American military aircraft that made a difference. Each of the military planes featured here have made large contributions to America’s military effort and each has a historic story to tell. These historic aircraft are on display at various venues around the U.S. and we will highlight some of these excellent air museums.

b-29 bomber

B-29 Superfortress in flight

The B-29 Superfortress

Everyone knows that it takes time between the design phase of an aircraft to it’s actual production. In the case of the B-29, the original designs were submitted to the U.S. Army in 1939. This was prior to the U.S. entering World War Two.

As military aircraft went, the B-29 was radically new in a number of ways. A pressurized crew area was one. The B-29 was also designed to carry remote controlled guns. The plane was also the heaviest to date built to carry bombs over very long distances. The plane was designed as a replacement for the B-17 and B-24.

Boeing built the B-29 in two plants. One was located in Wichita Kansas and the other in Renton Washington. Two other companies also manufactured B-29’s. These were the Bell Aircraft Company who constructed in Georgia and the Glen L. Martin Company who built the planes in Nebraska. Total B-29 production by all three companies which ceased in 1946 totaled just under 4,000 planes.

b 29 superfortress

Tail section of B-29 Superfortress

When you view these aircraft today, take special note of the airfoil and flaps. These are the Boeing 117 airfoil and the Fowler flaps which gave the B-29 superior left. The Boeing 117 airfoil had much lower drag and could provide better per pound of lift than any other airfoil. In addition to this the plane had the biggest flaps to date. The flaps provide more of a climb rate at takeoff and provide a lower stalling speed while landing. The Fowler flap was a  trailing edge flap that moves out of the wings on tracks. The Boeing 117 airfoil and the Fowler flap gave the B-29 a big advantage as a long range heavy bomber.

The B-29 Superfortress was ideal for operations during World War Two in the Pacific largely because of it’s extended range. Many of the bombing runs in the Pacific theater required very long distances from island bases. A very interesting book and great read is The Last Mission by author Jim B. Smith, a radio operator on the B-29 named “Boomerang“. This book chronicles the last mission of World War Two and how it inadvertently had a part in actually ending the war. The Boomerang flew over Japan while a failed coup by hard line Japanese military officers was underway.

b 52 bomber

B-52 Stratofortress

The B-52 Stratofortress

Just like the B-29, the B-52 was designed to be a long range heavy bomber. This aircraft can operate at altitudes of up to 50,000 feet and carry both nuclear and conventional precision bombs and missiles.

The military issued specifications for a new heavy bomber in November of 1945. Plans and designs for the B-52 were submitted in 1946. The B-52 was meant to be a replacement for the jet propelled B-36 Convair. Differing from the B-29, the B-36 was the world’s first manned bomber with an unrefueled intercontinental range.

The B-52 (B-52A) had it’s first flight in 1954 and became operational in 1955. During it’s production span, the B-52 was built as several models. The B-52 B was first manufactured in January 1955 and delivered to the Air Force six months later. The year 1956 saw the addition of a B-52 C and B-52 D.

b-52 stratofortress

One of the engine pods on the B-52 holding two Pratt and Whitney engines

In 1957 we saw the B-52 E roll out then in 1958 the B-52 F and G models. A total of 102 B-52 H’s were delivered to the Strategic Air Command beginning in 1961. The H model is capable of carrying up to 20 air launched cruise missiles. In addition, it can carry the conventional cruise missile that was launched in several contingencies during the 1990s, starting with Operation Desert Storm and ending with Operation Allied Force. The B-52 H is equipped with eight Pratt and Whitney engines each delivering 17,000 lbs of thrust. The aircraft has a range of 8,800 miles unrefueled and a speed of 650 MPH.

a-7 corsair

A-7 Corsair !!

The A-7 Corsair II

The Ling-Temco-Vought built A-7 Corsair II is a carrier-capable subsonic light attack aircraft. This plane was one of the most successful military aircraft of modern times. In addition to having one of the lowest loss rates during the Vietnam War, the planes cost a little over one million dollars each and delivered weapons with an accuracy unheard of in their era. The carrier based A-7’s were one of the Navy’s most potent striking weapons during the Vietnam War.

Built originally on the airframe of the F-8U Crusader, the A-7 underwent several modifications since its introduction in 1965. The A-7 Corsair II, was used by TAC for close air support attack missions. There were several A-7 models with the A-7E  being the final version. The A-7’s were eventually replaced with the F/A-18s in 1992.

a 7 corsair II

Nose of carrier based A-7 Corsair II

Though the exterior of the aircraft appears bulky, the plane had extraordinary power. The single seat plane with an official range of 2,280 miles, an Alison 15,000 lbs thrust engine and a top speed of 691 MPH, the A-7 Corsair II was quite an attack aircraft.

Links to two additional photo articles on our Western Trips site you’ll enjoy include the Grumman S-2A Tracker and the F-15 First Responder both on display a the Pacific Coast Air Museum located near Santa Rosa California.

You’ll also enjoy our Trips Into History photo article about the first transcontinental air route involving passenger trains. This is the story about Transcontinental Air Transport and the creation of TWA.

See the B-29, the B-52 and the A-7 Corsair II

The venues listed below are great low cost travel stops and feature a good collection of vintage and classic military aircraft.

All three of the military planes featured in this article can be viewed at the National Nuclear Science and History Museum in Albuquerque New Mexico. The museum is located just north of the Albuquerque International Airport and Kirtland Air Force Base, about six miles east of the downtown area.

carrier plane tail hook

Tail Hook on A-7 Corsair

The Pacific Coast Air Museum located just north of Santa Rosa California and about 65 miles north of San Francisco has an excellent display of military aircraft including the F-15 First Responder that took to the air over New York City during the September 11th attacks.

The Pima Air and Space Museum is one of the largest in the U.S. Located a few miles east of Tucson Arizona, the Pima Air and Space Museum features over three hundred aircraft including a B-29 and a B-52 G.

The Planes of Fame has two locations. One is in Chino California and the other just north of Williams Arizona between Williams and the Grand Canyon. This is a unique air museum because planes are not only restored but several are also in flying condition. Many World War Two planes are on display including a Grumman Bearcat, a Grumman/ General Motors Avenger TBM and a Mitsubishi Zero. The Arizona location is a great stop to add to your trip planner when visiting the Grand Canyon.

(Photo of B-29 Superfortress in flight is from the public domain. Remainder of photos are from author’s collection)

 

Early Air Travel / Planes Trains and Automobiles

 

Early air travel in the U.S., especially the transcontinental variety, was a unique adventure to say the least.

One of the most ambitious forays into this field was quite imaginative. It involved cooperation between the new airline industry and the well entrenched passenger railroad industry.

transcontinental air transport ford tri motor aircraft

Transcontinental Air Transport Ford Tri-Motor Aircraft

Two people who had a vision of transcontinental travel that included both airplanes and trains were the creators of Transcontinental Air Transport which incorporated in May 1928. They were a businessman named Clement M. Keys, at the time president of Curtiss Aeroplane and Motors Company and Charles Lindbergh. The vision was to transport people across the nation from New York City to Los Angeles California in just 48 hours. This was quite a novel idea in 1928. From the Atlantic to the Pacific in 48 hours was an aggressive plan. A connection to San Francisco was also available to passengers.

The idea, while novel, was not that complicated. Travelers would ride on Pullman rail cars by night and fly on the airline’s Ford Tr-Motor airplanes by day. The theory of course was by mixing in air travel with rail travel you’d greatly reduce travel time.

tat airlines transcontinental route map

Transcontinental Air Transport advertisement poster

Small Towns Help to Connect Transcontinental Air Travel

An interesting aspect of this endeavor was how elevated several small towns to national prominence. Among these towns were Winslow Arizona in the north Arizona desert, Waynoka Oklahoma about 75 miles northwest of Oklahoma City and Clovis New Mexico on the Texas border. Waynoka Oklahoma’s selection was in part because it had a new Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway railroad yard which ended up being the largest in Oklahoma.

The Route

TAT began operations on July 7, 1929. Of special note is that Charles Lindbergh piloted the first eastbound leg between Los Angeles and Winslow Arizona.

If you were traveling from New York to Los Angeles, yor first leg was the overnight Pennsylvania Railroad train to Columbus Ohio. In Columbus you would be put on a Ford Tri-Motor aircraft. at the Columbus Airport. Heading southwestward you would have four intermediate stops on you way to Waynoka Oklahoma’s newly constructed airport. In Waynoka, passengers would then board an AT &maddux airlines,mt taylor new mexico, SF Railroad overnight train to Clovis New Mexico. In Clovis you would again board the airline’s Ford Tri-Motor with stops including Albuquerque, Winslow Arizona on the way west to Los Angeles.

tat train airplane transcontinental route

TWA transcontinental air/train route advertisement

There were several firsts with this new travel plan. Transcontinental Air Transport offered some of the first airborne meals as well as the first time the Ford Tri-Motors were used for passenger service. Most of the aircraft at that time were designed for mail service rather than passenger service.

Mergers

It wasn’t long before TAT merged with Maddux Air Lines in California. The merger took place in late 1929 and added more Tri-Motors to the airline’s fleet. Maddux, a Los Angeles car dealer, owned a good sized fleet of Ford aircraft and had air operations ongoing in the west.

A String of Air Crashes

Transcontinental Air Transport suffered their first air crash during September 1929, just a few moths after it’s service began. The crash occurred on New Mexico’s Mt. Taylor west of Albuquerque. Mt. Taylor is one of the highest peaks in New Mexico. The press described the accident as the first commercial passenger airline crash. The TAT crashed flight was not found until six days after the crash occurred.Eight people died in the air crash. Five were passengers and three were crew members. One passenger had been a prominent Albuquerque and Gallup New Mexico businessman.

This crash on Mount Taylor was just the first of three crashes during the airline’s first eight months of operation. To say the least, the air crashes and the fatalities put a damper on the traveling public’s enthusiasm.

 

old newspaper stories of winslow arizona

Winslow Arizona newspaper stories concernin TAT airlines and Amelia Earhart visit

The Merger Creating TWA

Although Transcontinental Air Transport carried about 40,000 passengers during it’s first eighteen months of operation, it was losing a great deal of money. In November of 1930, TAT was forced to acquire Western Air Express.

Western Air Express was a mail carrier in California with federal airmail contracts. WAE found itself a victim to a newly organized air route system for the mails created by the Postmaster General. Esssentially, the Postmaster General at the time felt that no more than one airline company should service a particular air mail route.

This new merger was the creation of TWA. TWA received it;s first government mail contract in August of 1930. It’s coast to coast mail service began in October of that year and was an all airmail route, not a plane and train combination.

The New TWA

The new TWA concern, although eventually growing to be one of the largest of U.S. air carriers, was not a sure bet for success at it’s beginning. The main reason for this was the Great Depression which would get a lot tougher during the 1930’s before it would get better. During this period government mail contracts were the life blood of financial survival.

Following are two links on our Western Trips site that you’ll find interesting.

The F-15 First Responder on display at the Pacific Coast Air Museum.

The Beech 18 on display at the Western Aeroplane and Antique Car Museum.

On our Trips Into History site see the photo article on the Pullman Railroad Cars.

knute rockne of notre dame

Knute Rockne in gum advertisement

The Kansas Air Crash

TWA, struggling financially from the start, suffered a terrible setback with a crash in a Kansas wheat field in March 1931. This was merely five months after the new company’s start. The Kansas crash received enormous press coverage since one of the passengers killed in the crash was Notre Dame’s popular football coach Knute Rockne. Seven others aboard were also killed. The aircraft in the Kansas air crash was a Fokker Tri-Motor.

Sites to Visit to Learn More About TAT and TWA

If your travels take you to northern Arizona you’ll want to visit the Old Trails Museum in Winslow Arizona. Here you’ll view a lot of artifacts and posters relating to the first transcontinental air/train route.

In Waynoka Oklahoma you’ll want to stop by the Waynoka Air-Rail Museum. Lots of history on display there regarding the Waynoka connection on the transcontinental route. Waynoka was a stop where air passengers transferred to an overnight train to Clovis New Mexico.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. also has information regarding Transcontinental Air Transport in addition to a Ford Tri-Motor aircraft on display.

For those wishing to learn much more detail regarding this 1929 aviation/railroad venture, look for the book Steel Rails and Silver Wings:The Lindbergh Line to the Birth of TWA by authors Robert J. Serling and George H. Foster. You may also be interested in the book Howard Hughes Airline: An Informal History of TWA by author Robert J. Serling.

(Ford Tri-Motor, Winslow Newspaper stories and Knute Rockne photos and images from the public domain. Remainder of photos from author’s collection)

First In Flight / The First American Aviator

 

There are many fine aviation museums in the United States which make great additions to vacation planners and short weekend trips. We’ve listed several of our favorites near the end of this article. Each one is unique and makes an excellent fun stop.

Connecticut Mulls Change

The story below addresses a controversy in Connecticut which may indeed result in a new law being passed in that state which in essence declares that the Wright Brothers were not the first in flight.

A Connecticut House Bill which is being prepared for the governors approval states…“The Governor shall proclaim a date certain in each year as Powered Flight Day to honor the first powered flight by [the Wright brothers] Gustave Whitehead and to commemorate the Connecticut aviation and aerospace industry,” Republican state Sen. Mike McLachlan made the statement…”There’s no question that the Wright brothers will retain their place in aviation history and rightfully so. They just weren’t first.”

The following story addresses the subject of who exactly can claim the phrase “First in flight.” Who really could claim that they were the first to successfully fly an aircraft?

The Controversy

wright flyer

Wright Flyer I in 1903

One of the biggest controversies concerning early aviation revolves around the questions of...Who was the first in flight in the United States? Were the Wright brothers the first to succeed with a controlled flight within the borders of the U.S.? While the common wisdom has always been that indeed it certainly was the Wright brothers and the flight took place in 1903, the naysayers to this claim say it is untrue. Thus the continued controversy, at least with some doubters.

The “First in Flight” Controversy

The Smithsonian Museum displays the Wright Brothers 1903 Wright Flyer,  described as the world’s first successful airplane. The exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. also displays historic photographs and cultural artifacts, along with instruments and personal items associated with the Wright Brothers.

There have been some historians who contended that an earlier powered flight took place aside from the hot air balloons of the 1800’s. In other words, some have stated that a powered airplane or aeroplane flight took place in St. Joseph Michigan in 1898.

A man named Augustus Moore Herring who had some background with gliders had carried out a several gliding experiments.  Herring found financial backing and constructed a biplane hang glider in 1898. The glider was equipped with a small compressed air engine. Newspapers reported that Herring flew this powered, heavier-than-air craft 50 feet on October 10, 1898  over the lakeside sand dunes of St. Joseph, Michigan.

gustav whitehead flight

Drawing of Whitehead’s 1901 flight that appeared in newspaper

The Case For Gustav Whitehead

Another story involves a man named Gustav Whitehead and this is the claim now accepted by Connecticut lawmakers. . Whitehead increased his knowledge step by step and evolved a series of both gliders and airplanes, each one a modification of its predecessor.

It was reported that Whitehead flew several times in his own powered aircraft (high wing monoplane) design in both 1901 and 1902. The 1901 flight, which is the event most discussed, apparently took place in Fairfield Connecticut in August of that year. A newspaper story at the time, which seemed to lack an author, reported that Whitehead’s heavier than air craft flew about one-half mile and reached up to 50 feet in height.

To this day there are historians who do credit Gustav Whitehead with this flight experiment. Conversely there are those who do not. The doubters point to the lack of concrete evidence that the event actually took place. In other words, an absence of solid documentation. Although, in addition to local coverage, it’s been reported that the Evening World newspaper in New York reported on the event. There were also stories about Whitehead’s achievements in a 1903 Scientific American. There were additional reports as well. Supposedly Whitehead’s unsheltered craft was destroyed during a storm and hence there wasn’t a craft to display to the public as the Wrights were able to do.

wright brothers airplane

Wright Flyer II in 1904

The Whitehead doubters also point out that Whitehead’s control of the craft was by shifting body weight which they claim would not be sufficient to control an aircraft. In addition, it’s quite questionable that a charcoal fueled steam engine, which was reportedly used, could provide enough power to lift itself off the ground.

In Whitehead’s favor however is the fact that today’s light aircraft have many similarities to the high wing monoplane design of his 1901 flight.

Whitehead Ignored?

The real story about Gustav Whitehead’s achievements faded from the public eye until the mid 1930’s. At that time Popular Aviation magazine published articles where the author obtained affidavits from people insisting they witnessed Gustav Whitehead’s flights. The witnesses had several different recollections of what they saw in regards to height and distance. A year after the Popular Aviation story, a Harvard professor disputed the claim in an article and then, after further investigation and speaking with witnesses, wrote another article supporting Whitehead’s claims.

heath parasol airplane

Heath Super Parasol

There were articles written decades after that criticizing the Smithsonian in particular with giving scant attention to the achievements of Gustav Whitehead.

It does appear that Whitehead’s flights received much more credit in publications and articles other  than from anything the Smithsonian put forward.

As it turned out, in 1968 the state of Connecticut honored Gustav Whitehead with the recognition of “Father of Connecticut Aviation“.

The Historic Significance of the Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers had the advantage of keeping extremely detailed records of both the construction of their aircraft as well as the flights afterward not to mention a surviving model. In some respects you could say that the Wright Brothers were quite successful in touting their accomplishment. In regards to the achievements of Gustav Whitehead, I believe that there is certainly ample evidence that he did experiment with powered flight. He may very well have done this prior to the Wright Brothers four successful flights at Kitty Hawk.

whitehead glider

Gustav Whitehead in one of his gliders

In a way, there is also somewhat of a similarity to the achievements of Henry Ford. There was much experimentation with automobiles in the very late 1800’s. Several people put together motorized buggies with a variety of steering mechanisms and power plants. In fact, some of these were former horse buggy builders. Henry Ford however was recognized as an automobile industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company. While Henry Ford did not invent the concept of the automobile, he developed and manufactured the first automobile that many middle class Americans could afford to buy. He achieved this by creating the assembly line which turned out more cars for less money. There is no better example of Ford’s achievement than the famous Model T.

While there have been questions raised as to who exactly invented the airplane (I’m not sure there will ever be a consensus on that issue), a big factor in favor of the Wright Brothers achievement is the fact that they had controlled flight without using body weight as a primary instrument.

curtiss aircraft

1916 Curtiss Model N

According to the Smithsonian, the instruments the Wright’s employed were arranged so all could be turned off, along with the engine, the instant the flight was over by a single movement of a wooden lever mounted on the lower wing. Instruments the Wright Brothers used included a Richard anemometer and a stopwatch that were mounted on the front strut to the pilot’s right. These recorded distance through the air in meters and the duration of the flight. From these of course airspeed could be calculated. In addition, a Veedor revolution counter was mounted at the base of the engine to record engine revolution.

The Wright Brothers achievement at Kitty Hawk and the design they utilized is said by many to be the model from which aviation grew from. Therefore, the motto “First in Flight”. One might also argue that their Kitty Hawk flights were much more documented. There’s more to the story explaining why the Wright Brothers Kitty Hawk accomplishment is presented today the way it is…..

After his brother Wilbur passed away, Orville Wright was determined to defend the fact that the brothers be considered the inventors of the airplane. In fact, the Wright Flyer was actually moved to a London museum during a period of disagreement with how the Smithsonian was presenting the Wright Brothers Kitty Hawk achievement. This finally seemed to be settled once and for all in 1948.

An Agreement With The Smithsonian

beechcraft 18

A Beechcraft 18

Not to be understated, and certainly in response to the controversy regarding Gustav Whitehead’s 1901 flight, is an agreement entered into between the Wright heirs and the Smithsonian in 1948.

The agreement reads as such...” Neither the Smithsonian Institution nor its successors nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered by the United States of America, by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight”.

It’s an interesting controversy and one that probably will always be with us for a long time. I think it’s viable that many, including Whitehead, did experiment with powered flight design  at about the same time the Wright Brothers were working on their designs. The question than is...Who of all the inventors or experimenters contributed the most to what today we call the aviation industry? Another way of saying it is...Was there any one early aviation development that stood out from all the others?

curtiss jenny

Curtiss Jenny in 1918

According to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., it is that of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. Smithsonian contends that the Wright Brothers were the  “First in Flight”.

Two links on our Western Trips site you’ll be interested in is to a photo article about the Beechcraft Model 18 and the F-15 First Responder.

Also, on Trips Into History see our article on the Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph Missouri. This is one of the 50 most unusual museums in the country.

Some Great Places to Visit

If you’re traveling in the Tucson Arizona area you’ll want to make a stop at the massive Pima Air and Space Museum. The museum is located just off Interstate 10 east of Tucson and covers 80 acres. The museum is open seven days per week and exhibits over 300 aircraft and spacecraft.

pacific coast air museumA much smaller but very unique museum is the Pacific Coast Air Museum located just a few miles north of Santa Rosa California and about 65 miles north of San Francisco. One of their very special displays is of the F-15 First Responder. This is one of the actual aircraft that scrambled during the attacks on September 11th 2001. Many other military aircraft are displayed as well.

The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque New Mexico is a real treat to visit. Aircraft among their outdoor display include a B-52 Stratofortress and a B-29 Superfortress from 1945. Also many displays of rockets as well as a conning tower fin from a retired nuclear submarine.

b 52 tail photo

B 52 Stratofortress tail close up

While traveling in the state of Oregon make a note to visit Hood River. Here you can explore a fascinating aircraft and vintage automobile museum. The Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM) displays one of the largest collections of historic propeller driven airplanes in the United States, with each and every plane in flying condition. Every plane has been beautifully restored and represents the growth of aviation. Among the many aircraft on display is a 1917 Curtiss JN-4D, a 1928 Boeing 40 C, a 1929 Curtiss Robin and a 1929 Heath Parasol. There are many more. The Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum is located just a few miles south of Hood River. The museum also hold a fly-in each year the weekend after Labor Day. Offered are food, fun, exhibits and plane rides.

(Photos of Beechcraft 18, Heath Parasol, Pacific Coast Air Museum, B 52 tail photo from authors collection. Remainder photos and images from the public domain)

 

Pan Am China Clipper / The Air Route to the Orient

Flying The Pacific Route From San Francisco to the Orient

One of the most remarkable achievements and a colorful period in early passenger plane history was the highly successful and many would say glamorous trans-Pacific route of the fabled Pan Am China Clipper. The story of the China Clipper brings back memories of a time when air travel across the Pacific was an adventure. There had never been anything like it before. At the time, it was a trip taken by the very adventurous and/or the very rich. The Pan Am China Clipper demonstrated that long distance air travel over the world’s largest ocean was indeed possible.

china clipper postage stamp

Stamp denoting first China Clipper flight over the Pacific

The China Clipper took off from San Francisco Bay near the old Alameda Naval Air Station site in the east bay area and flew across the Pacific to Hong Kong. This was not only a great achievement but it also opened the Pacific region to much more travel.

If you think airfare is high today, a ticket on the China Clipper was in today’s dollars about $10,000.

To offer you some perspective, the price of a new home in 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, averaged about $3,400. The average price for a new car was $625. Obviously this priced out most people. Among the very rich who could afford the airfare there were also both government travelers (not sure how this fit the national budget) and of course celebrities. Some celebrities could afford the fare but I’m sure in some cases their studio employer ended up footing the bill. This was also before the era of earning free flights with points saved up.

The Beginnings of Pan AM

pan am china clipper

Pan Ams China Clipper over the San Francisco Bay area

The beginning of Pan Am itself was in many ways an answer to international competition in aviation. If you’ve seen the movie “The Aviator“, there is a glimpse of the Pan Am story however in the movie the plot line is really about the competition between Howard Hughes‘ Trans World Airlines and Juan Trippe‘s Pan Am. The movie is largely about the life of Howard Hughes.

International Air Route Competition

Back in the 1920’s, Germany had made headway with routes into South America. In fact, history tells us that Germany had quite a bit of interest in general with the South American continent. In 1927’s a couple of ex Army Air Corp majors got together and established an airline mostly in response to the German presence. Eventually eastern financiers entered the picture and a Yale graduate named Juan Terry Trippe in 1927 put together a holding company called the Aviation Corporation of the Americas. Between 1926 and 1930 there were many mergers and acquisitions mainly between three different investment groups. The end result was that by 1930 Juan Trippe was managing the America’s largest aviation transport company. Pan Am was a subsidiary of his parent Aviation Corp. The goal for a start up was to obtain mail contracts from the government. The other goal of course was to get landing rights.

The First Routes

juan trippe

Also, the presence of concrete runways in the 20’s and 30’s were hard to find. Trippe’s new company obtained rights for a mail rout between Key West Florida and Havana Cuba in 1928 and began service with a rented single engine float plane.

It was from those very humble and uncertain beginnings that Pan Am was eventually launched. Government mail contracts were the key to financing new routes. The mail contract along with landing rights put you in business.

If anything, Juan Trippe was very aggressive and lobbied for more government mail contracts. With passenger demand questionable, a mail contract was the way to have a steady predictable cash flow. Two challenges were to find air routes in which you could operate and service aircraft with suitable runways. The other was to obtain the proper aircraft.

Trippe’s spent much time trying to convince aircraft manufacturers to build larger, more powerful and longer range aircraft. Pan Am had it’s sights on service to all of the South American continent which it did accomplish. Eyes were then turned to both Europe and the Pacific region. In the early 1930’s, years before the first trans Pacific flight, Juan Trippe employed Charles Lindbergh to find a route to the Orient. Lindbergh looked at a route via Alaska and and the Aleutian Islands but this proved impossible because of the growing conflicts in China, Japan and Korea. The question then was how to build an aircraft that could travel very long distances non stop.

Two additional photo articles you’ll find interesting are the Twin Beechcraft Model 18 and the story of the Heath Parasol Homebuilt Airplane of 1929.

Speed and Comfort Island Hopping Across the Pacific Ocean

Pan Am’s answer was the Clipper fleet which eventually comprised some 28 aircraft made by three different aircraft builders. They were Sikorsky, Martin and Boeing. The Clipper that made the inaugural flight out of San Francisco bay on November 22, 1935 was a Martin M-130. This was a four engine flying boat that went on a route to Manila Bay Philippines via Pearl Harbor, Midway Island, Wake Island and Guam.

pan american china clipper schedule

Pan Am’s China Clipper schedule

The trip took six days and a total of 60 flight hours with an average speed of 130 MPH. That first flight from San Francisco carried upwards of 100,000 mail pieces. Later, Hong Kong and New Zealand were added to the route.

The first flights carried mail only but passenger service was begun in 1936 with a one way fare of about $10,000 in today’s dollars.  The Clippers could take only twelve passengers which was one reason for the high ticket price. The plane itself was appointed with a lounge which made it the most luxurious way to travel by air anyplace. Juan Trippe’s vision was to provide the same type of first class amenities one might experience on a sea voyage. Pan Am built a reputation for this kind of service.

In 1942, due to World War Two, the U.S. Government took control of the Clippers and operated mostly southeast down to Australia via Pearl Harbor and the Fiji Islands. The planes however were still crewed by Pan Am employees and were very valuable to the Pacific War effort.

In Came the Concrete Runways

The end of the Clipper airliners occurred with the build out of concrete runways throughout the world. No longer was the ability to take off and land on any large body of water a big advantage. Likewise, the aircraft manufacturers built planes for land based airports.

There is no question that the rapid rise of Pan Am was the result of obtaining large government contracts including route rights, especially in Europe, South America and the Orient. Nevertheless, the Pan Am China Clipper story is an  amazing piece of history. Juan Trippe’s vision and achievement ranks at the very top of aviation history.

More Information About the History of Pan Am

A few interesting venues where you can learn about the legendary Pan American World Airways and about the Pan Am Clipper aircraft include the Museum of HistoryMiami located at 101 West Flagler Street in Miami Florida.

Another good site is the Aviation Museum at the San Francisco International Airport. Lots of good artifacts from early aviation on display there. Also in the San Francisco Bay area is the Pan Am Clipper Exhibit Hall at the Alameda Naval Air Museum in Alameda California. Make it a point to see their Clipper Aircraft flying model on display. It’s a one of a kind exhibit.

One more San Francisco Bay area venue you’ll find interesting is the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos. The museum is on the grounds of the San Carlos Airport. Founded in 1998, the Hiller Aviation Museum has a memorial plaque at it’s entrance pertaining to the 1943 crash of the Philippine Clipper while approaching the San Francisco area in fog and rain. A nine man Pan Am crew in addition to ten Naval officers were killed in the crash. Among them was the commander of the Pacific Submarine Fleet.

(Article copyright Trips Into History. Photos and images in the public domain)