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Six Aviation Sights in SoCal and Where to Ride Like the Tuskegee Airmen

Tuskegee P-51 Mustang at the Palm Springs Air Museum | Wikimedia Commons/Jwissick
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Relive the excitement of man’s first steps on the moon and the long journey it took to get there with 20 new hours of out of this world programming on KCET's “Summer of Space"  Watch out for “American Experience: Chasing the Moon” and a KCET-exclusive first look at "Blue Sky Metropolis," four one-hour episodes that examine Southern California’s role in the history of aviation and aerospace. 

Southern California has been a hotbed of aviation activity since the early 20th century, when companies started setting up operations here. They were attracted by the area’s nice weather and stayed thanks to the skilled labor force, spirit of innovation and low construction costs. The Lockheed Brothers, Douglas Aircraft, Northrop and Hughes Aircraft Company were among the first to arrive. Nearly a century later, our region’s passion for aviation remains strong, with museums big and small welcoming visitors to see a variety of aircraft up close, pay their respects at famous aviators’ gravesites, view rare artifacts and footage from days past, and even take a flight in a vintage fighter plane. 

Here’s a quick tour of some of SoCal’s aviation museums and their unique offerings.

Planes of Fame Air Museum

Touted as the “first aviation museum in the Western United States,” the Planes of Fame Air Museum was founded by preservationist, historian and author Ed Maloney, whose collection started with ten planes and now stands at almost 160 static and flying aircraft, about thirty of which are on display at an additional campus in Arizona. Notable planes at this Chino location include replicas of the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer and Germany’s 1945 Bachem Ba 349 Natter interceptor. The museum also hosts a monthly Living History Flying Day featuring a special topic and panel of guest speakers, often followed by a flight demo.

Republic AT-12 Guardsman at the Planes Of Fame Museum, Chino | Greg Goebel/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Republic AT-12 Guardsman at the Planes Of Fame Museum.  | Greg Goebel/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

14998 Cal Aero Drive, Chino

Open Sunday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Museum of Flying

Spirit of Santa Monica Douglas DC-3 at the Museum of Flying. | InSapphoWeTrust/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Spirit of Santa Monica Douglas DC-3 at the Museum of Flying. | InSapphoWeTrust/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With 22,000 square feet of exhibit space, the Museum of Flying features more than 20 aircraft, including a Monnett Monerai sailplane from the late ’70s and modern postwar plane the North American Navion, nicknamed the “poor man’s Mustang.” Memorabilia from notable aviators and aviation art is on display to the public as well. Visitors can also watch films and documentaries in the screening room. There is a replica of the company’s executive boardroom with its original 1953 round table with a lit globe at its center to acknowledge the role of the museum's founder, Donald Douglas Jr. of the Douglas Aircraft Company, in aviation history.

3100 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica

Open Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Western Museum of Flight

Lockheed YO-3A Quiet Star | SDASM Archives/Flickr/Creative Commons
Lockheed YO-3A Quiet Star | SDASM Archives/Flickr/Creative Commons

The number of aircraft on display may be no more than 20, but the museum’s collection is noteworthy, including the Northrop cruise missile JB-1 Bat and the single-engine Lockheed observation aircraft YO-3A Quiet Star, designed to be — you guessed it — quiet during flyovers in order to observe troop movements during the Vietnam War. The museum also has a Kids Love Aviation Science Program that serves more than 500 children per year and will soon include a Women in Aerospace interactive exhibit featuring artifacts from the all-female pilot group Ninety-Nines, which was formed in 1929 and included Amelia Earhart. 

Torrance Airport, 3315 Airport Drive, Red Baron #3, Torrance

Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

Burbank Aviation Museum

Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation | Konrad Summers/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation | Konrad Summers/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Housed in the corner rooms of the ornate, 75-foot-tall Portal of the Folded Wings Shrine to Aviation — where many aviation pioneers are interred, including female pilots Matilde Moisant, Elizabeth Lippincott McQueen and Evelyn “Bobbi” Trout — the small but mighty Burbank Aviation Museum features model planes, archival images and other memorabilia documenting the city’s aviation history. In front of the shrine is also a mid-sized replica of the Space Shuttle Columbia commemorating the lives lost on February 1, 2003.

3898 Valhalla Drive in Valhalla Memorial Park, Burbank

Open the first Sunday of the month, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Palm Springs Air Museum

Tuskegee P-51 at the Palm Springs Air Museum | Wikimedia Commons/Jwissick
Tuskegee P-51 Mustang at the Palm Springs Air Museum | Wikimedia Commons/Jwissick

The 86,000-square-foot museum features 59 planes and four hangars. Not only can visitors see aircraft up close, but they can also purchase tickets to fly in one of two vintage warbirds: a P-51 Mustang, a fighter aircraft flown during World War II and the Korean War, or a C-47 Skytrain, a military transport aircraft that was used by Allied armed forces. But such a ride comes at a high price: $1,895 to ride in the P-52, and $99 for a ride in the C-47.

745 N Gene Autry Trail, Palm Springs

Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Yanks Air Museum in Chino

Cessna AW NC8782 "West Wind III" at the Yanks Air Museum. | Alan Wilson/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Cessna AW NC8782 "West Wind III" at the Yanks Air Museum. | Alan Wilson/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

There are more than 200 American aircraft in the Yanks collection: from the sleek McDonnell Douglas F-18 of the Navy’s Blue Angels fame to an AW Golden Age Cessna, popular during the late 1920s. The museum also has two examples of Curtiss JN-4 Jenny aircraft, which “The Flying Schoolgirl” Katherine Stinson, the first female aerobatics pilot, was known to fly, as well as Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie, the first American woman to receive an aircraft mechanic license. 

7000 Merrill Avenue, #35-A270, Chino

Open Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

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