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Where to Experience Aviation History in SoCal

March Field Air Museum (1)
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In response to JFK’s call to land a man on the moon, America relied on the workforce in Southern California, the aerospace capital of the world. Listen to them recount the rock and roll-like excitement of the times.
The Southern California Spirit in the Sky

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 played an important part in aviation history – from manufacturing (Hughes, Douglas, Lockheed) to recreational flying to piloting to defend our country. So, it’s no wonder that we still have so many active airfields and air museums devoted to the great beasts that have sailed our skies.

Here are six places where you can picture yourself in the pilot’s seat, sit in a cockpit, and even take flight – just like the great airmen and airwomen of SoCal once did during The Golden Age of Aviation (and beyond).

1. Flight Path Learning Center & Museum, LAX

While some planespotters sit and watch the commercial jets fly in and out of LAX from El Segundo, the never-built runways of Surfridge, or Dockweiler State Beach you can get a real lesson in aviation history near the freight terminal and cargo planes of LAX at the Flight Path Museum. Yes, LAX has a museum – and it’s open to the public! You can even board the “Spirit of ’76,” a restored DC-3 parked on the tarmac that first flew in 1941 and was retired in 1982 (and is said to have been frequented by both Howard Hughes and Charles Lindbergh).

2. Long Beach Airport, Long Beach

Long Beach Airport (1)
Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

Because of its small size (and its limited commercial flight schedule because of local noise ordinances), not many commercial travelers actually get to experience it first-hand. But even if you don’t have a boarding pass for a flight departing out of LGB, it’s worth a visit to see the Streamline Moderne vintage terminal, the historic photos of the Douglas Aircraft Company (including the origin story of “Rosie the Riveter”), and the WPA-era mosaic tiles. (Those were hidden under carpeting for years and only just recently uncovered!). Despite the dearth of jumbo jet traffic, Long Beach Airport is actually incredibly busy – mostly with small, private planes. You get to see some of them on display at the annual “Festival of Flight” (formerly called the “Long Beach Fly-In”), where pilots and plane aficionados come together to arrange flight lessons and scenic rides high above the L.A. basin.

3. March Field Air Museum, Riverside

March Field Air Museum (2)
Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

On the March Air Reserve Base, just east of the 215 Freeway, there’s a museum that specializes in retired military aircraft – and they’re some of the hugest ones you’ll ever see. From the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress (a.k.a. the “Big Ugly Fat Fellow,” or BUFF) to the Boeing B-47 Stratojet Bomber (which was designed to fly at high subsonic speed and altitude), some of them are so larger than life that they seem almost impossible to fly.All of the planes at March were used throughout the 20th Century, though not every one of them actually saw combat. In addition to the restored planes, there are also other heritage aircraft parked in the Restoration Hangar, getting ready to go out on display.

4. Torrance Airport – Zamperini Field, Torrance

You’ve got two great opportunities to experience flight at the Torrance Airport: at Robinson Helicopter Company and at the Western Museum of Flight. At Robinson, you can experience history in the making by taking a free tour of the factory, where they assemble and test helicopters used as newscopters, police helicopters, and private civilian copter craft. If antiques are more your thing, head a few doors down to the volunteer-run Western Museum of Flight for their historic displays, videos, and knowledgeable docents.

5. Aviation Museum of Santa Paula, Santa Paula

Santa Paula has neither the biggest local airport nor the largest collection of interesting planes, but the no-frills air field and its hangars let the privately-owned vintage planes housed there shine. It's the perfect place for people to store and display their vintage aircraft (around 300 at any given time). The first Sunday of every month, you can visit for free, explore, and meet the local pilots. Anybody who wants to learn how to fly a Cessna civilian plane can attend the airport's resident flight school, CP Aviation.

6. Sky Sailing, Warner Springs

Sky Sailing, Warner Springs (2)
Courtesy of Sandi Hemmerlein

If you’ve ever wished you had control of a plane, then you must venture to East San Diego County to take to the skies with Sky Sailing. Experiences range from a gentle ride in a motor-less sailplane (also known as a “glider”) that gets towed up to cruising altitude to a motor glider and a “Super Spectacular Aerobatic Ride.” Regardless of which flight experience you choose, the scenery will be spectacular up there, above the mountains that are situated between Cleveland National Forest and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Read more and see more photos of these amazing destinations here.

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